Monday, October 29, 2012

The Orchardist

Fruitful. The Orchardist is a finely written debut novel by Amanda Coplin. Set in the Wenatchee Valley area of Washington at the turn of the twentieth century, this novel excels in many ways. The characters are vividly drawn and the love and caring they express in the face of pain and turmoil maintains an emotional authenticity that could have crossed into melodrama, but never did. The setting and time period come alive through carefully chosen descriptive language that was often poetic. Coplin accomplishes something a debut novelist often misses: she helps readers care deeply for these characters and feel moved by what happens in their lives. We look to fiction to help us understand human nature more fully. Readers who want to spend time in that pursuit will find reading this novel to be a fruitful experience. Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended) Click here to purchase The Orchardist from

The Geneva Trap

Loyalty. Stella Rimington’s latest Liz Carlyle novel is titled The Geneva Trap. Readers who like fast-paced spy novels are those most likely to enjoy this one. The puzzle pieces are complex enough to keep most readers interested to the end, as Liz tries to solve a case that has connections to her past and to loved ones. A theme of the importance of loyalty runs throughout the novel providing a thread for the action. Rimington’s own MI5 experience informs the ways in which she presents the world of espionage. I read this novel quickly and was entertained by both characters and plot. Rating: Three-star (Recommended) Click here to purchase The Geneva Trap from

Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President

Harm. It’s a rare work of non-fiction that can appeal simultaneously to those who love history, medicine, science, politics and a well-told story. Candice Millard pleases readers of all types in her book, Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President. She presents the shooting of President James Garfield and his treatment by physicians who did more harm than good. Alexander Graham Bell works day and night to invent a device that aid in Garfield’s treatment. Millard maintains momentum as she presents this lively, interesting and entertaining story, packed with details but never tedious. I learned much about Garfield and the practice of medicine in 1881. Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended) Click here to purchase Destiny of the Republic from


Voice. The black book jacket with the single word title, Mortality, provides a crisp and clear summary of what to expect in Christopher Hitchens’ last book. Curious to the end, Hitchens finds just the right words to convey the experience of his dying. This fine writer’s voice remains lucid as he probes the journey to his death with insight into our human situation and the fact of our mortality. Any reader who wants to engage in an exploration of dying should read this finely written book. Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended) Click here to purchase Mortality from

Say Nice Things About Detroit

Hometown. Fans of Detroit along with readers who like novels set in vibrant urban settings are those most likely to enjoy Scott Lasser’s novel, Say Nice Things About Detroit. Protagonist David Halpert returns to his hometown Detroit from Colorado and finds hope and a new life. Lasser presents interesting characters and a satisfactory plot. Any reader finishing this novel will come away with good feelings about Detroit and about the capacity of individuals to find hope and love in the face of any kind of trouble. Rating: Three-star (Recommended) Click here to purchase Say Nice Things About Detroit from

Friday, October 26, 2012

The Twelve

Transition. The good news is that the second novel of Justin Cronin’s trilogy, The Twelve, came in three hundred pages shorter than The Passage which opened the series. The bad news is that while you can read the current novel on its own, you’ll understand the material far better if you pay the 800 page price of reading the first one. The other bad news is that Cronin needs to wrap up the story in an upcoming novel, and my guess is that the third novel will be a long one. So be careful, once you start, you’re likely to endure to the end. This trilogy tells of a scientific experiment gone bad and what happened to people and cities. Cronin excels at character development, and both the good and bad ones are drawn with precision. The plot is complex and entertaining. Readers who like big sweeping books with dark themes are those most likely to enjoy this one. Rating: Three-star (Recommended) Click here to purchase The Twelve from

Where'd You Go, Bernadette

Funny. Maria Semple’s novel, Where’d You Go Bernadette, kept me laughing from beginning to end. Bernadette is the average Seattle stay-at-home Mom: she won a McArthur genius award; her husband Elgin is a Microsoft executive leading a two hundred person team on a project involving mind control; and fifteen year old only child, Bee, is a prodigy who convinces her parents to reward her good grades with a Christmas vacation to Antarctica. Bee’s private school, fellow students and their parents are ripe for parody, and Semple mines that thread with great wit. Anyone familiar with that setting will laugh out loud. Bernadette uses a virtual assistant in India to handle much of the logistics of her life, because her social anxiety or agoraphobia leads her to stay close to home. In the tradition of I Love Lucy, the things that can go wrong do, and misunderstandings have significant consequences. Readers looking to read something both intelligent and funny should consider this novel. Rating: Three-star (Recommended) Click here to purchase Where’d You Go Bernadette from

A Good Man: Rediscovering My Father, Sargent Shriver

Tribute. Readers looking for their spirits to be uplifted should pick up Mark Shriver’s tribute to the life of his father titled, A Good Man: Rediscovering My Father, Sargent Shriver. I smiled and teared up at different parts of this book and finished it feeling terrific. So many dimensions of Sarge Shriver come alive on these pages: his optimism, public service, wise parenting, faith, and hard work. We can become jaded and cynical about the lives of public figures, especially when they seem hypocritical or self-dealing. This book reveals the inside view of a public figure who tried every day to be good and to do good. Rating: Three-star (Recommended) Click here to purchase A Good Man from

Sacred Ground: Pluralism, Prejudice, and the Promise of America

Connections. Eboo Patel’s reflections on what kind of country we are and what we aspire to be are thoughtful and lucid in his book, Sacred Ground: Pluralism, Prejudice, and the Promise of America. Using examples of his work as founder and president of Interfaith Youth Core, Patel presents the ways in which tolerance and understanding can lead to building a stronger America, reinforced by the strength of our connections with those in our community who are different from ourselves in one form or another. The increase in divisive rhetoric that expresses prejudice calls for a response. Pluralism has been an important element of the United States from our beginning, and Patel writes a compelling story of how by coming together we can reinforce that value and become a better nation. Rating: Three-star (Recommended) Click here to purchase Sacred Ground from

The Age of Miracles

Changes. Karen Thompson Walker’s debut novel, The Age of Miracles, presents a creative device to considering global calamity: the slowing of the earth’s rotation. Viewed from the perspective of an eleven year old girl, Julie, the changes in the length of a day, in her family, and in herself, are mined thoroughly by Walker as a coming of age story. Julie is drawn as a complete and complex character, whose observations are acute. Other characters are less well-developed, but the plot, dialogue and fine descriptive language offset that weakness. Readers looking for a fresh and creative voice should consider this well-written novel. Rating: Three-star (Recommended) Click here to purchase The Age of Miracles from

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Waiting for Sunrise

Shadows. Fans of literary fiction are those most likely to enjoy the latest novel from William Boyd titled, Waiting for Sunrise. Boyd develops a fascinating protagonist, actor Lysander Reif taking him from England to Vienna in 1913 for psychoanalysis, and then to become a spy for England. The prose develops the action in light and shadows with great skill, keeping the plot moving along, while developing the complexity of Lysander’s life. Intelligent and thoughtful readers won’t be disappointed by this finely written novel. Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended) Click here to purchase Waiting for Sunrise from


Identity. Check the five day weather forecast before you start reading Jo Nesbo’s novel, Phantom. There’s enough gloom and misery in this novel to spoil the sunniest day, so I can’t imagine the experience of reading this on a gloomy or cloudy day. Protagonist Harry Hole is one of the most complex characters in modern fiction. He has the moral core of the policeman he has been, and the erratic behavior of the alcoholic he has also been. The extremes of love and hate are never distant from the daily life of Harry Hole. While each novel in this novel stands alone, there’s richness for readers who have followed the trajectory of Harry’s life. I won’t even bother with reference to the plot here because the reason to pick up this novel is to enter into a complex life and watch the tension between good and evil play out, no matter what else is going on. Fans of crime fiction are those most likely to enjoy this novel and this series, provided one has a high tolerance for gloom. Rating: Three-star (Recommended) Click here to purchase Phantom from

The Fallen Angel

Home. Fans of thriller novels will love Daniel Silva’s The Fallen Angel, featuring art restorer and Israeli spy Gabriel Allon. Silva masters two elements of this genre: he develops a complex character that readers root for; and he tells a fast-paced story that thoroughly entertains. Whether this is the first or twelfth Allon story you’ve read, you are likely to enjoy this talented protagonist, and feel satisfied with the plot and action. Allon averts disaster and calamity while using his expert skills. He longs for a quiet life at home, and gets called into the most unquiet kind of experiences one can imagine. Rating: Three-star (Recommended) Click here to purchase The Fallen Angel from

No Easy Day: The Firsthand Account of the Mission That Killed Osama Bin Laden

Mission. I’m a fast reader, and I rushed my way through Mark Owen’s vivid account of his life as a Navy SEAL and his participation in the mission that killed Osama Bin Laden. No Easy Day is an account of the training, practice and talent of the many professionals who work to become the best at what they do. Written under the pseudonym Mark Owen, this book conveys the love of doing work that makes someone become the most highly skilled among their peers. This book will be inspirational for young people who are considering a military career and have the desire to become the very best at what they will do. Any reader who enjoys getting an insider view of a significant historical event will love reading this book. Rating: Three-star (Recommended) Click here to purchase No Easy Day from

The Yellow Birds

Choices. Every war provides talented writers with the experience to convey to readers something similar and something different about the horror of battle. Kevin Powers displays his lyrical writing skill and thoughtful insight in a debut novel titled The Yellow Birds. Two young male protagonists, Bartle and Murphy, are developed just enough for readers to be engaged in the Iraq War and its aftermath. Powers does a fine job in exploring their choices, and the trauma they experience. Had this novel been twice as long, it would have been half as good. Powers’ poetic language describes the places and their experience with clarity and horror. If there’s one debut novel you’re likely to read in the next few months, make it this one. Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended) Click here to purchase The Yellow Birds from

Friday, October 5, 2012

San Miguel

Atmospheric. Readers who enjoy historical fiction that vividly brings to life a place and time are those most likely to enjoy T.C. Boyle’s latest novel, San Miguel. The title refers to the island off Santa Barbara, California, where most of the action takes place in the 1880s and 1930s. Three female protagonists provide the grist for the novel as they struggle to make a good life in a harsh environment during challenging times. It took me a while to get settled into this novel, because in some ways Boyle was using a historical structure and style to fit the subject and setting. The dark humor and snappiness of his earlier novels is missing here, replaced by the intensity of island life. Unlike in earlier novels when I had to keep a dictionary handy while reading Boyle, this time I looked up only three words. Boyle is a great writer, and readers who enjoy literary and historical fiction are those most likely to enjoy this book. Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended) Click here to purchase San Miguel from

The Secret Race: Inside the Hidden World of the Tour de France: Doping, Cover-ups, and Winning at All Costs

Lanced. Readers interested in the world of professional cycling are those most likely to read Tyler Hamilton and Daniel Coyle’s book, The Secret Race: Inside the Hidden World of the Tour de France: Doping, Cover-ups, and Winning at All Costs. I had the sensation while reading this book that Hamilton needed to purge the poison out of his system, like lancing a boil to bring relief from pain. The Lance at the center of much of this book is Lance Armstrong, a teammate and competitor of Tyler Hamilton. In no uncertain terms, Hamilton describes the long time practice of Armstrong, Hamilton and others in using any means possible, legal or illegal, to win bike races. This is a sad personal story about a sport that has been tarnished by scandal. I finished the book feeling like now Hamilton can get on with his life. Rating: Three-star (Recommended) Click here to purchase The Secret Race from

An American Diplomat in Franco Spain

Lively. Some memoirs plod along in a comprehensive chronicle packed with details, while others bring a person, time and place to life through well told crisp anecdotes. Michael Rockland’s An American Diplomat in Franco Spain falls into the latter group. I was thoroughly entertained by the stories of his role as cultural attaché to the American embassy in Spain during the 1960s. The concise and lively stories of his life during this time made me feel like I was having dinner with him listening to great stories while we’re enjoying delicious Spanish cuisine. Did I tell you about the time Martin Luther King Junior came to Madrid? How about Ted Kennedy? Any reader with an interest in Spain, the 60s, foreign service, and interesting lives will find something to enjoy in this book. Rating: Three-star (Recommended) Click here to purchase An American Diplomat in Franco Spain from

Killing Lincoln

Artistic. History need not be boring, but unless labeled fiction, readers should expect some diligence about getting the facts right. After the third person recommended that I read Bill O’Reilly’s dramatic book, Killing Lincoln, I decided to go ahead, despite having read some poor reviews. To my surprise, I was thoroughly entertained by the dramatic presentation of the well-known and documented events surrounding the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. O’Reilly’s confident prose gets most of the big facts right, but I found myself thinking too often that some of what he presented didn’t match what I read from prominent historians. If you want to read a well-researched history of this event and this time period, choose another book. If you want to be entertained with a dramatically presented story that takes some artistic liberties, and doesn’t nail down all the facts, by all means enjoy this book. Rating: Two-star (Mildly Recommended) Click here to purchase Killing Lincoln from

Hidden America: From Coal Miners to Cowboys, an Extraordinary Exploration of the Unseen People Who Make This Country Work

Glimpses. Curious readers who are wondering what some jobs are like close-up will enjoy reading a new book from Jeanne Marie Laskas titled, Hidden America: From Coal Miners to Cowboys, an Extraordinary Exploration of the Unseen People Who Make This Country Work. In addition to the jobs in the subtitle, Laskas devotes chapters to a wide range of others including: landfill workers, cheerleaders, oil rig workers, truck drivers, the air traffic controllers at La Guardia, gun shop workers and migrants at a labor camp in Maine. Each chapter stands well on its own and provides snippets into the lives of people that Laskas spent time with on the job. Laskas is a talented writer, and the glimpses she provides for readers into the people she presents in this book introduce us to lives that are not typically part of our daily experience. Rating: Three-star (Recommended) Click here to purchase Hidden America from