Tuesday, March 27, 2012

History of a Pleasure Seeker

Yield. When Piet Barol, the protagonist of Richard Mason’s novel, History of a Pleasure Seeker, finds himself offered the chance to indulge in any form of pleasure, he yields to the opportunity with delight and enthusiasm. Set mostly in Amsterdam in 1907, Barol is hired as a tutor to the son of a wealthy hotelier. The house is packed with beautiful objects and people, the food and service outstanding. Barol is handsome, talented and charming, and uses skills and wits to achieve what he desires. Readers who like period novels and atmospheric sensuality are those most likely to enjoy this novel.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
Click here to purchase History of a Pleasure Seeker from amazon.com.

V is for Vengeance

Pacing. The latest and twenty-second novel in the Kinsey Millhone series from Sue Grafton is titled, V is for Vengeance. For the past thirty years, Grafton has rewarded patient readers with entertaining episodes in the life of a California private detective. Grafton’s pacing in the novel and in the series proceeds at a moderate rate, allowing fans to savor every page. In the current offering, Kinsey stumbles on a crime ring and pursues resolution with vigor. Readers who like detective fiction can start here or anywhere and find pleasure.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
Click here to purchase V is for Vengeance from amazon.com.

How It All Began

Accidental. What I enjoyed most about Penelope Lively’s novel, How It All Began, was the cast of charming and endearing characters. Lively frames her plot around the notion of how a single accident can lead to considerable consequences for characters that at first seem unconnected from one another. For those readers who like to read about a wide range of behavior, enjoy witty dialogue, and have any interest at all in chaos theory, this novel will deliver the goods.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
Click here to purchase How It All Began from amazon.com.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010

Class. Any reader interested in the current state of American society will benefit from reading Charles Murray’s controversial book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010. Murray’s premise is that our society is divisible by class. There is a new upper class and a new lower class, and he explains why that matters. To eliminate the “noise” he focuses on white America, since some readers may see our class divide as racial. This book carves up a lot of numbers, and he draws conclusions with a libertarian point of view. His passion on this topic comes from the question about whether or not American exceptionalism can survive. Whether one agrees with Murray or not, his concerns about how we may be coming apart the seams are worth considering.

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

Stay Awake

Lost. There are twelve short stories in a new collection from Dan Chaon titled, Stay Awake. The characters in these stories are people facing disorientation, loss and situations that are weird. Readers who like psychological tension in fiction are those most likely to enjoy this collection. Life is messy, bad things happen, and the story ends. Readers are left uncertain about resolution. The unsettled nature of the story also leaves the reader somewhat unsettled. Try a story or two. If you like one, you’re likely to enjoy the others.

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


Trafficking. Robert Crais sets his latest Elvis Cole and Joe Pike novel on the Mexican border and uses the current headline issue of human trafficking as the backdrop for the fast-paced action in Taken. Crais moves us backward and forward in time from the perspective of multiple characters, and that device increases the tension a reader feels. A young woman and her boyfriend are kidnapped, and the woman’s mother hires the man she read about as “the world’s greatest detective,” Elvis Cole, to find her. Elvis asks Joe Pike to protect his back, and things get more than a little complicated when plans don’t turn out as expected. Fans of action thrillers or this particular series are those most likely to enjoy this novel.

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

The Optimism Bias: A Tour of the Irrationally Positive Brain

Expectations. I had something of a “wow” reaction as I read Tali Sharot’s book, The Optimism Bias: A Tour of the Irrationally Positive Brain. Her research has led to conclusions that optimism is a survival mechanism, and at the neural level, our brain tends to frame the past as better than it was and position us to expect a better future. The regions of the brain that do these things are described in a way that’s accessible to all readers, and those who like to think about thinking and are interested in how the brain works, are those most likely to enjoy this book.

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

Pity the Billionaire: The Hard-Times Swindle and the Unlikely Comeback of the Right

Reality. The target audience for Thomas Frank’s book, Pity the Billionaire: The Hard-Times Swindle and the Unlikely Comeback of the Right, is the reader who finds some of the logic of the political right to represent an alternate reality. Unlike what happened after prior economic crises when progressive populism arose, the reaction to the 2008 crisis has been a conservative populism. Frank explores how and why that happened, and where what logic there is may lead (hint in the title.) Frank’s writing is entertaining and lively, and the attention he calls to the lack of reality in some of the muddling positions of the right will appeal to liberal readers, especially those who recognize the absurdity in some elements of conservative populism.

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

The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Family's Century of Art and Loss

Inheritance. Most families have stories about the lives of our ancestors. Fortunate families have some objects that were acquired by those ancestors that connect us to the past as a part of our inheritance. Edmund de Wall is a ceramicist who inherited 264 netsuke from a favorite uncle. One of the netsuke, small intricately carved objects from Japan, provided the title of his family memoir, The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Family’s Century of Art and Loss. This finely written book tells of the Ephrussis family, wealthy grain traders and bankers from Russia whose wealth grew in the 20th century as they migrated to Paris and Vienna. Their wealth and some of their lives were destroyed by the Nazis. A family servant hid the netsuke from the Nazis, and they became the only objects that were passed along to the survivors of that tragic time. I was absorbed by this book from beginning to end and recommend it highly to any reader who enjoys how good writing can bring the past to life.

Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended)
Click here to purchase The Hare with Amber Eyes from amazon.com.

The Shadow Patrol

Stan. The timing of Alex Berenson’s latest John Wells novel could not be better. Set in Afghanistan, The Shadow Patrol explores the duplicity and self-interest of a variety of players in the military, the CIA, and among Afghans. In some ways, this novel seems to come straight from the nightly news. The lively writing made me think that Berenson had fun writing it. Making the code name of a CIA operative, “Stan,” was just outright funny. While Berenson continues to present Wells as a heroic figure whose skills are superior to all other humans, there are enough aspects of his life that come through in this installment that readers can see him as one of us. Fans of action novels are those most likely to enjoy this book.

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

Perilous Fight: America's Intrepid War with Britain on the High Seas, 1812-1815

Navy. Readers who gravitate toward naval history are those most likely to enjoy Stephen Budiansky’s fine book, Perilous Fight: America's Intrepid War with Britain on the High Seas, 1812-1815. Budiansky provides a solid foundation of the politics and issues of the time, and the weaknesses of the fledgling USA in comparison to England’s Royal Navy. He describes the key players in sufficient detail, and highlights with ample description the pitched battles that marked that war. Readers unfamiliar with this war will learn much from this book, and those who know this period well are likely to appreciate Budiansky’s contribution to our understanding of that time.

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

Thinking Fast and Slow

Principles. Readers who like to think about thinking will enjoy Daniel Kahneman’s book, Thinking Fast and Slow. This Nobel winner elucidates his own research about how the mind works and comments on the insights of other researchers. The title refers to the ways in which our brain leads us toward quick and lazy decisions that are almost automatic versus the harder and slower thinking work that requires greater effort. Kahneman describes his decades of research in a readable style that most readers will find interesting and enlightening. Fans of behavioral economics will find this book to be delightful reading.

Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended)
Click here to purchase Thinking Fast and Slow from amazon.com.

Friday, March 2, 2012

The Art of Fielding

Sacrifice. Chad Harbach’s sprawling and ambitious debut novel, The Art of Fielding, demands a lot of patience from readers. The characters are developed very slowly, almost at the pace of most baseball games. The setting is a Midwestern college where the protagonist, Henry Skrimshander, has been recruited to the school because of his talent as a baseball player. His ambition and that of other characters, along with the sacrifices made by many, provide the backdrop for relationships and a multi-year odd adventure with mighty highs and deep lows. Harback tested my willing suspension for disbelief at many times, but by the time I finished the 500+ pages, I realized that I had really enjoyed a fine story. Patient readers who are willing to give a chance to first time authors are those most likely to enjoy this novel.

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

At Last

Safety. The action in Edward St. Aubyn’s finely written novel, At Last, takes place on the day of the protagonist’s mother’s funeral. Patrick Melrose feels relief and a sense of safety now that both his parents are deceased. His father abused him and his mother knew. St. Aubyn’s prose is constructed with great care and precision, full of wit and psychological insight. This novel is part of a series he’s written about the wealthy Melrose family and his insight into the life of the privileged will be appealing to many readers. Fans of finely written literary fiction are those most likely to enjoy this novel.

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

The Dogs of Rome

Relaxed. Conor Fitzgerald’s debut crime novel, The Dogs of Rome, proceeds at a relaxed pace in introducing readers to protagonist Commissario Alec Blume. I became engaged in the life, work and world of Blume and I enjoyed the easy going plot momentum. Readers learn just enough about the characters to be interested, and the choices that Blume makes in dealing with bosses, subordinates, witnesses, criminals and lovers kept me engaged throughout the novel. Readers who like crime fiction and are looking for new authors are those most likely to enjoy this novel.

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

What It Was

Setting. George Pelecanos paints such a vivid picture of the setting for his novel, What It Was, that readers will see and feel the early 1970s on these pages. Pelecanos likes the cars, the music and the clothes, so they are described in detail to set the background and mood for a quickly paced crime novel featuring private detective Derek Strange at the time just after he left the Metropolitan Police Department. Fans of crime fiction and Pelecanos are those most likely to enjoy this book.

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

Bringing Up Bebe: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting

Autonomy. I was entertained and amused by Pam Druckerman’s book, Bringing Up Bebe: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting. Druckerman presents her personal story of raising children in France. Working like an anthropologist as a participant-observer of the culture, she is able to call attention to the differences she saw in how French parents behaved with their children as compared to many American parents. Among the many differences she presents are the approaches to patience and waiting rather than leaping in, and the ways in which autonomy is encouraged. No one parent’s experience or observation is ever definitive for another parent’s behavior, so those readers expecting a how-to manual will be disappointed. Readers who enjoy lively writing about family life across cultures will find this book interesting.

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

Fixing the Housing Market

Data. A recent book from Wharton’s Milken Institute Series on Financial Innovations is titled, Fixing the Housing Market. I expected the book would provide a brief review of what caused the crash, and then spend the bulk of the presentation on alternative solutions. Instead, the authors provide a lengthy historical framework and lots of global data. Their analysis of the data seemed shallow, and almost all of the book covers history and data. By the time the solutions were presented, they seemed vague and too generalized to be useful. Readers looking to understand housing over the past hundred years will find useful information here. Those looking for cogent recommendations for solving our problems should look elsewhere.

Rating: Two-star (Mildly Recommended)
Click here to purchase Fixing the Housing Market from amazon.com.

The Wolf Gift

Mutation. Prolific author Anne Rice has returned to her fan base with the first 400 page novel in what readers will hope is a new series. The Wolf Gift features protagonist Reuben Golding, who has become a werewolf. Similar to the characters in her vampire novels, these werewolves are heroic monsters who battle evildoers. While long philosophical passages may bore some readers, the action moves quickly, there’s a love story, and the contemporary setting brings the story to life. This is a satisfying story to those readers who have come to enjoy Rice.

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

Machine Man

Evolution. Max Barry combines dystopia, satire and comedy in his latest novel, Machine Man. Protagonist Charles Neumann works as a scientist in the lab of an unscrupulous company named Better Future. After Charlie loses his leg, he considers making himself an improved model. Barry satirizes our culture of constant self-improvement, and describes corporate exploitation and avarice in an extreme way. Charlie’s exploits become hilarious at times, and the pace of the novel is quick. Fans of Barry’s prior novels will be pleased with this one, and new readers may find his quirky writing to be an acquired taste. Read an excerpt before diving in.

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