Monday, November 26, 2012

Garment of Shadows

Surprises. Morocco is the setting for Garment of Shadows, the latest Laurie King novel featuring Sherlock Holmes and Mary Russell. King takes a familiar character, Holmes, and pairs him with Russell, his intellectual equal, and places them in settings outside England. Fans of intelligent mysteries, packed with surprises, fleshed out by well-developed characters and just the right amount of descriptive language, are those most likely to enjoy this novel and the others in this series. I read this novel quickly and enjoyed every page. Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended) Click here to purchase Garment of Shadows from

The Testament of Mary

Viewpoint. Of the many thousands of pages ever written about the Blessed Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus, none are quite like those in a novella from Colm Toibin titled, The Testament of Mary. After I finished the book, I thought about the way a friend once asked and answered as follows: “Did you ever wonder why the Madonna has a wistful look on her face in all the depictions of mother and child in art? It’s because she was thinking as she looked at the baby Jesus, ‘I was hoping for a girl.’” If you don’t find that statement offensive, this book is right up your alley. Toibin offers a viewpoint of what Mary may have thought late in her life. As a witness to the death of her son, Toibin has her feeling that his death was not worth it. From page 80: “ ‘I was there,’ I said. ‘I fled before it was over but if you want witnesses then I am one and I can tell you now, when you say that he redeemed the world, I will say that it was not worth it. It was not worth it.’” The humanity of a mother whom we would all recognize comes through on the pages of this novella. Toibin’s writing is superb, whether you agree with his viewpoint or not. Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended) Click here to purchase The Testament of Mary from

Bull by the Horns: Fighting to Save Main Street from Wall Street and Wall Street from Itself

Selective. In a remarkable show of restraint in her account of her service as chair of the FDIC, Sheila Bair waited until page two before she slammed Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner. Bull by the Horns: Fighting to Save Main Street from Wall Street and Wall Street from Itself presents one piece of the puzzle surrounding the recent financial crisis. I was captivated by Bair’s account from beginning to end, and when I finished I felt like I can’t wait for Geithner’s version of events. One jab from page 170: “Tim seemed to view his job as protecting Citigroup from me, when he should have been worried about protecting the taxpayers from Citi.” Ouch. This book isn’t all about Bair vs. Geithner. Bair explains her focused role: protecting the FDIC from losses. Combined with the books released and forthcoming from other key participants, readers interested in finance and public policy will be able to assemble a comprehensive view only if one reads every perspective. Rating: Three-star (Recommended) Click here to purchase Bull by the Horns from

The Marseille Caper

Deceptions. I zipped through Peter Mayle’s The Marseille Caper in a single evening. The plot is fast-paced, the characters are developed well enough, and the descriptions of place are just right. Because Mayle reprised characters from another novel I read, The Vintage Caper, I felt like I picked up the new novel where the old one left off. The latest novel can stand well on its own if a reader prefers to start here. I don’t know if Mayle will continue with these characters in future novels, but if he does, I’m likely to read them. Any reader who likes crime fiction that comes packed with a range of deceptions will enjoy this one. I also found that the glass of wine I sipped during the second half of the novel helped cheer me to a satisfying end. Rating: Three-star (Recommended) Click here to purchase The Marseille Caper from

She Loves Me Not

Variety. The nineteen stories in Ron Hansen’s new collection, She Loves Me Not, provide readers who love short fiction with a tasty smorgasbord. Through efficiency and precision, Hansen drew me into the lives and settings of people whose behavior displays a wide range of human nature. I found myself reading two stories in the morning and two in the evening as a way to pace myself and reflect on each one individually. Readers who savor fine writing and enjoy diverse characters and geography are those most likely to enjoy this collection. Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended) Click here to purchase She Loves Me Not from

Friday, November 23, 2012

Who I Am: A Memoir

Creativity. When I opened Pete Townshend’s memoir, Who I Am, I expected to read a revealing story about a talented and troubled artist. I found that and more on the pages of this finely written book. I was surprised at the high quality of Townshend’s writing. He tells his story with precision and care, and any reader who enjoys this genre will come away from this book very satisfied. Whether you like music, creativity or human nature, there’s something beneficial for you on these pages. Unlike the tell-all sensationalism in some celebrity memoirs, I felt that Townshend was trying to reveal with candor and insight how he has become who he is. That’s exactly the value that can be derived from reading a finely written memoir like this one. Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended) Click here to purchase Who I Am from

Sorry Please Thank You

Zany. Readers looking for some laughs should consider Charles Yu’s story collection titled, Sorry Please Thank You. Yu’s blend of science fiction and reality can provide settings that are ripe for laughter. Yu’s voice is unusual and might be an acquired taste for some readers. Sample a selection to see if this will be entertaining for you. I found these stories to be funny and creative. I enjoyed each one. Rating: Three-star (Recommended) Click here to purchase Sorry Please Thank You from

The Importance of Being Seven

Habitual. Readers who enjoy light fiction but have trouble finding the time to read a novel should consider Alexander McCall Smith’s 44 Scotland Street series. Smith created this series in daily installments for The Scotsman and he presents a cast of characters engaged in everyday life in Edinburgh. A reader can enjoy a single installment in a few minutes and come away satisfied. The sixth and latest in the series, The Importance of Being Seven, advances the story for fans who have read the earlier installments. A new reader could start here and still be satisfied. Once in the habit of reading a little bit every day, before one knows it, another book is finished. The characters are endearing, the plot is interesting, and human nature is revealed. Rating: Three-star (Recommended) Click here to purchase The Importance of Being Seven from

The Lower River

Aid. Things are often not as they appear in Paul Theroux’s novel, The Lower River. Spend a few hours with protagonist Ellis Hock in Malawi and you’ll feel better about your life, no matter how unhappy you may be, or how much you struggle. Hock has left behind his unhappy Massachusetts life in his early sixties and returns to a place where he had found happiness four decades earlier. With a plan to help the people of the remote and desolate Lower River, Hock finds himself powerless and trapped. Theroux presents a dark side of philanthropy that shows how aid may not always be helpful. The plot twists are complex and entertaining, and Theroux’s descriptions of the setting provide a vivid picture of the environment, especially if you like snakes. Rating: Three-star (Recommended) Click here to purchase The Lower River from

The Jewels of Paradise

Inheritance. I opened Donna Leon’s novel, The Jewels of Paradise, knowing that it was a departure from her popular series of mystery novels featuring Commissario Guido Brunetti. I eagerly anticipated savoring any new area of interest for this writer whose work I have enjoyed. Set in Venice, Leon presents a female protagonist, Caterina Pellegrini, who has returned to her hometown with a doctorate in baroque opera to research the contents of two trunks containing the possessions of a cleric and composer dead for three centuries. Two cousins want to confirm their rights to inherit these contents which according to family lore contain treasure. For the first hundred pages, I tried to enjoy the exposition, but found it plodding and boring. After the halfway point, I rushed ahead to finish, never feeling satisfied with characters or plot. Readers who love Venice may find some passages delightful. Fans of the Brunetti series need to be able to set that pleasure aside and be open to a new style in this novel. For me, Leon squandered her Brunetti inheritance on this novel. Rating: Two-star (Mildly Recommended) Click here to purchase The Jewels of Paradise from

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Lionel Asbo: State of England

Prison. If you love social satire and superb writing, you’re likely to enjoy Martin Amis’ novel, Lionel Asbo: State of England. The lower class world of modern London provides the energy for Amis to display his great writing talent. Protagonist Lionel Asbo is a thug and a sociopath who changed his name from Pepperdine to Asbo, as a homage to his major accomplishment in life thus far: anti-social behavior orders from the time he was three years old. Another skill is his ability to train dogs to be vicious. The calmest periods in Lionel’s life are when he is in prison. While there he learns that he has won 140 million pounds in the lottery. The result is that he has become a celebrity thug and his over the top behavior is exactly what a reader would expect. The remaining members of the cast of characters are presented with precision, especially nephew Desmond Pepperdine, and Lionel’s mother, Grace. The language is pitch perfect in its garble, and the humor soars. There’s love and hate on these pages, true evil and abiding goodness. Readers who appreciate fine writing and careful language selection are those most likely to enjoy this novel. Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended) Click here to purchase Lionel Asbo from

Winter of the World

Middle. The twentieth century moves to the middle third as Ken Follett follows the lives of the families he introduced in Fall of Giants as another generation matures in Winter of the World, the second installment of the trilogy. Readers have another thousand pages to follow the lives of characters in the run up to World War II and its aftermath. I can imagine a wall chart that Follett must have created to highlight the key events of the twentieth century, and then deciding how those events can be presented in the lives of his large cast of characters. For readers who read the first novel, this is the anticipated continuation of the story. New readers could begin here, but for the sake of continuity, it makes more sense to start with the first installment. With two thousand pages read, it’s all downhill from here as fans await the third and final installment. If you like historical fiction, you’re likely to enjoy an immersion in this one. Rating: Three-star (Recommended) Click here to purchase Winter of the World from

Ghosts of Manhattan

Jerks. I wanted to like Douglas Brunt’s debut novel, Ghosts of Manhattan, but I remained distracted by the stereotyped characters and Brunt’s inability to flesh them out with more insight and depth. Protagonist Nick Farmer is a bond trader at Bear Stearns, and the lifestyle he pursues is wearing him down and hurting his marriage. Set between 2005 and 2007, the knowledge about the collapse of Bear sits with the reader, but remains a future event, outside the scope of the novel. So many of the adult characters are presented as adolescent jerks that the distraction of drinking, drugs, strippers and hookers became too central a focus for this novel to succeed. There are a dozen or so terrific pages in the almost three hundred pages of this book. Readers patient enough to wade through it all are likely to be rewarded. Those readers with a clear notion of Wall Street employment being a hedonistic lifestyle will be confirmed in their views when they read this novel. Rating: Two-star (Mildly Recommended) Click here to purchase Ghosts of Manhattan from

The St. Zita Society

Doors. I can almost picture Ruth Rendell sitting on a bench and observing the comings and goings of residents and their employees on a block in London. She imagined the upstairs and downstairs lives of these people and presents them in a tightly written novel titled, The St. Zita Society, a reference to a newly formed association of the employees on this street. In fewer than three hundred pages, Rendell introduces a cast of characters, develops them vividly, and presents a plot that was absorbing and entertaining. She takes us behind closed doors and reveals the life inside. Readers who like finely written crime fiction are those most likely to enjoy this book. Rating: Three-star (Recommended) Click here to purchase The St. Zita Society from

The Racketeer

Planning. It’s tough to present a jailed attorney as a heroic figure, but that’s what John Grisham pulls off in his novel, The Racketeer. Malcolm Bannister resides in a federal prison in the fifth year of a ten-year sentence he feels he received unjustly for his involvement in a money laundering scheme. After a federal judge is murdered, Bannister knows who the murderer is, and the plot of the novel involves the intricate plan Bannister develops and executes to extract revenge on the government and reward for himself. Grisham presents a great protagonist in this novel, and a plot that can entertain any reader who likes this genre. Rating: Three-star (Recommended) Click here to purchase The Racketeer from

The Lost Bank: The Story of Washington Mutual-The Biggest Bank Failure in American History

Choices. Any reader interested in the financial crisis should read Kirsten Grind’s The Lost Bank: The Story of Washington Mutual-The Biggest Bank Failure in American History. Through lots of interviews and research, Grind digs into the weeds of what happened at Wamu, and finds ways to keep readers engaged and interested in the story of the people and their decisions. This is a story about choices: the selection of people for certain jobs, and the decisions they made. The contrast between two former CEOs was enlightening: Lou Pepper and Kerry Killinger selected choices that made the bank strong in the former case and weak in the latter. I was entertained, captivated, enthralled and angered by this story. Grind does a great job in bringing a company to life and in explaining a complicated story in a way that all readers can easily understand. Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended) Click here to purchase The Lost Bank from

Robert B. Parker's Fool Me Twice

Again. One of these days I will stop reading the novels that continue the brand of the late Robert B. Parker. In the meantime, I’m having trouble breaking the habit, so I read the latest Jesse Stone novel from Michael Brandman titled, Robert B. Parker’s Fool Me Twice. The busy summer in Paradise, Massachusetts becomes even more hectic when a Hollywood movie crew arrives to shoot a film. Of course, since this is a crime novel, that’s not all that’s shot. Jesse is on the job, and by the end of the novel, everything is resolved. Readers who like character-based crime fiction are those most likely to enjoy this one. Rating: Three-star (Recommended) Click here to purchase Fool Me Twice from

A Conspiracy of Friends

Complications. The prolific author Alexander McCall Smith titled the third installment of his Corduroy Mansions series, A Conspiracy of Friends. Readers of the earlier novels will be delighted by the return of a familiar cast of London characters, including the terrier, Freddie de la Hay, whose presence and character is as fully developed as his human companions. Smith presents the growing complications in the lives of these characters, and by the end of the novel, readers will have enjoyed spending time with these interesting people, and will await the next installment. Those readers who are new to the series might start here and wonder why would anyone care about these characters. It’s best to start at the beginning and join those readers who love the ways in which Smith develops characters whose lives become interesting to readers and whose struggles and foibles can be similar to our own. Rating: Three-star (Recommended) Click here to purchase A Conspiracy of Friends from

Merge / Disciple: Two Short Novels from Crosstown to Oblivion

Possibilities. The short novels that Walter Mosley writes in his Crosstown to Oblivion series are finely written and quick to read. The latest, Merge/Disciple, includes two novellas that are paired as perfectly as when a wine complements a tasty plate of food. Mosley riffs on an expanded reality and what may be possible. In Merge, a lottery winner uncovers a richer treasure than his winnings. In Disciple, the protagonist finds himself promoted from being a data entry clerk to the head of a company. However unlikely the plot, readers are likely to enjoy the tightly written prose and the big questions underlying the stories. Mosley is a fine writer and readers who like to think about life and its possibilities are those most likely to enjoy these two short novels. Rating: Three-star (Recommended) Click here to purchase Merge Disciple from

The Tombs

Travels. Sam and Remi Fargo are back for another fast-paced adventure in Clive Cussler’s novel, The Tombs. They match their wits against an evil Russian businessman as they race to locate and uncover the hidden tomb of Attila the Hun. It’s no spoiler to say that the good guys win in the end. Along the way, their travels proceed quickly, and the action makes for very quick and entertaining reading. Fans of action novels with sharply drawn characters are those most likely to enjoy this one. Rating: Three-star (Recommended) Click here to purchase The Tombs from