Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The Interestings

Camp. We’re coming up on the summer camp season, and this will be a perfect time to read Meg Wolitzer’s novel, The Interestings. The bonds formed as teens at an arts camp in the early 1970s have endured for decades for an ensemble of characters, each of whom Wolitzer presents and develops with precision. One could try to categorize this novel as a coming of age story, a tale of enduring love and friendship, parenting, social satire, or a sampling of life over the past five decades. This finely written novel is some of all that and more. Wolitzer teased me into the lives of these characters, and once I was there, she helped me care about them. I enjoyed their good times and mourned their losses. Most of all, I understood them as real, complex people whose authenticity holds a mirror to my own life and that of those I know and love. This is a big novel that I enjoyed while reading it, and appreciated all the more after I reflected on it. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase The Interestings from amazon.com.

Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power

Contradictions. I’ve slowly savored reading Jon Meacham’s fine book, Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power. Many of us know well the highlights of Jefferson’s life. Meacham left me with several reflections about Jefferson: he had a vision for America that was at times in sync and at other times misaligned with that of other founders; he seemed to be comfortable in holding multiple contradictory views (slavery being the greatest contradiction); and his legacy is so large that reflecting on it by reading a book like this is time very well spent. Any reader with an interest in the formation years of the United States will enjoy reading this book. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power from amazon.com.

How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia

Pursuit. Mohsin Hamid riffs on the structure of a self-help book in his short novel, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia. Hamid packs a wallop in this clever and quirky novel. He presents the rags to riches story of someone who pursues success. Along the way, his unhappiness grows. Hamid explores ambition, dreams, the search for meaning and for love in life, as well as financial rewards. Read a sample before jumping in. Those readers who like an excerpt are likely to enjoy the whole book. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase How to Get Filthy Rich from amazon.com.

The Hopkins Touch: Harry Hopkins and the Forging of the Alliance to Defeat Hitler

Middleman. Since I share a surname with Harry Hopkins, I’ve noted his accomplishments for decades, often referring to him fondly as “Cousin Harry,” while we are unrelated. When I saw David Roll’s book, The Hopkins Touch: Harry Hopkins and the Forging of the Alliance to Defeat Hitler, I knew I had to read it. Roll presents the many ways in which Hopkins served Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the United States, especially during World War II. Hopkins’ role as confidant to FDR and middleman to Churchill, Stalin and others, was critical to the success of the allies in fighting the war. Roll ascribes Hopkins’ success to his affable personal style and deep understanding of the individuals with whom he interacted, what Roll calls “The Hopkins Touch.” Readers who enjoy history will find this book fascinating and informative, especially those who want to know more about the mid-twentieth century and World War II. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Hopkins Touch from amazon.com.

The Hit

Insiders. Clandestine assassin Will Robie returns as protagonist in David Baldacci’s novel, The Hit. I can almost imagine Baldacci’s thought process as he planned this novel. Who could best complement Robie? The solution seems obvious: a female assassin working for the same agency. Jessica Reel is as complicated and troubled a character as Robie, but usually Baldacci leaves character development to spread over several books, and that’s the case here. Where Baldacci excels is at creating a fast-paced plot, and this plot kept me engaged from beginning to end. Powerful government insiders are implementing a plan that will change the world. Robie and Reel become caught up in deciding the right path for them to pursue, in compliance or defiance of orders. Fans who like action thrillers are those most likely to be pleased by this one. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Hit from amazon.com.

Friday, May 10, 2013

The Burgess Boys

Guilt. There must be well-developed psychological insights that Elizabeth Strout learned in her life that help her write fiction that presents readers with well-developed complex characters. I loved her novel The Burgess Boys because of the many ways in which she unmasks the suffering and trouble beneath the persona most individuals present to the world. Some are suffused with guilt. Some have no idea why they do what they do. Many are wounded by the actions of those close to them. Many have to leave one place to discover their true selves somewhere else. All are drawn, eventually, to the bonds of family, and to expressing the love that endures all wounds. This is a novel filled with outsiders, trying to fit into a world that they don’t really understand. I raced through this finely written novel, caring about these characters, even or especially, the ones I didn’t like. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase The Burgess Boys from amazon.com.

Red Velvet Cupcake Murder

Penthouse. Protagonist and baker Hannah Swensen returns for more crime solving in Red Velvet Cupcake Murder, the latest novel in a series by Joanne Fluke. I find that I enjoy books in this series as a diversion after I’ve read something difficult, long, or challenging. Life in Lake Eden, Minnesota is simple and everybody is friendly and nice, except for the occasional villain or murderer. The action in the current novel starts at the grand opening of the renovated Albion Hotel, now condos, including a full floor penthouse. (If there are only three floors, can you still call the top one a penthouse?) A familiar cast of characters returns for hijinks, and the usual abundance of sweets. This time out, Hannah herself is a suspect in a murder case. Readers who like easy-to-solve mysteries, and the slow pace of small town life are those most likely to enjoy this novel. Of course, all bakers are a natural audience for the included recipes. Rating: Three-star (It’s ok) Click here to purchase Red Velvet Cupcake Murder from amazon.com.

Harvest: An Adventure into the Heart of America's Family Farms

Nourishing. I finished reading Richard Horan’s book, Harvest: An Adventure into the Heart of America's Family Farms, on the same day I picked up the first CSA veggie box of the season from the family farm my family has supported for years through our participation in what they harvest for our dinner table. Horan describes his journey across America to harvest one crop or another from ten different family farms. These farmers welcome Horan into their lives for a short time, and he relates their story with wit and insight. Readers who like real food and want to visit with a series of farmers will find that this book is the perfect meal. Now to prepare tonight’s supper: something with the just-picked ramps, asparagus, lettuces, radishes, dandelion greens and bok choy. Rice will be involved. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Harvest from amazon.com.


Clever. I read Ken Kalfus’ 200-page novel, Equilateral, in a single sitting on my screened porch. As I set it aside, my first thought was “that was clever,” and the first thing I did was look to the skies. Protagonist Thayer is a British astronomer who embarks on a massive project in the desert to dig a triangle that could be visible from Mars once it is set ablaze. This will be an invitation to the sentient lives on Mars, who must have built those Martian canals, to visit Earth. On one level, that’s the plot. Kalfus gives readers so much more. This is also comic social commentary and a study in colonization, hubris, exploitation and the domination of economic interests over everything else. Kalfus crafts a fine work in this novel that almost demands a second reading, for another day. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Equilateral from amazon.com.

The Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat

Cogent. Obfuscation can often be the preferred communication style of professionals involved in foreign relations. Coded language conveys messages to narrow targeted audiences, while most listeners hear little that could be called cogent or transparent. Contrary to that approach, Vali Nasr writes with candor and clarity in his book, The Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat. He also writes with a specific viewpoint: supportive of Richard Holbrooke and Hilary Clinton, and angry at the shortcomings of the Obama White House. The first accounts of history come from informed insiders like Nasr, and this contribution will be used by others who will assess American foreign policy for years to come. Readers interested in politics and world affairs are those most likely to enjoy reading this finely written book. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Dispensable Nation from amazon.com.

My Escapee

Wondering. There are ten short stories in the collection from Corinna Vallianatos, titled after one of them, My Escapee. If there is a single thread that links these stories, it may be that in each one, the central character is wondering about something important. There is action taking place in the mind. I admire the discipline it takes to craft short fiction. Each sentence can be packed with depth and insight. Vallianatos displays an understanding of human nature in these stories, and uses fine language to unveil these lives with efficiency. Readers who like finely written short prose are those most likely to enjoy the stories in this collection. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase My Escapee from amazon.com.

The Abundance

Values. Immigrants and their children often live in America in ways that are in conflict with both local and homeland cultures. Amit Maimudar presents a very recognizable family in his novel, The Abundance. The protagonist and narrator is the mother of the family, and she is dying of cancer. Her children and her husband respond to this situation in varying ways. Each character questions his or her values from the old world or the new, as the need to face mortality becomes immediate. Cooking sustains them. Maimudar’s lyrical prose and lucid narration impressed me throughout the novel. Readers looking for the joy of real life, family relationships, love, and the natural way of death are those most likely to enjoy this novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Abundance from amazon.com.

A Study in Revenge

Complicated. Readers who enjoy crime fiction that requires close attention to detail and the unraveling of complexity are those most likely to appreciate Kieran Shields and his latest novel, A Study in Revenge. His debut novel, The Truth of All Things, entertained me, so I was primed to spend time again in Portland Maine in the late 19th century with the same protagonists. It was time well spent, as I was entertained again, and I had to engage a few of my own brain cells to join in figuring things out. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase A Study in Revenge from amazon.com.

Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation

Toxic. I never expected that a book about cancer epidemiology would keep me enthralled through more than 500 pages. Dan Fagin writes about toxic pollution and its aftermath in his book, Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation. Fagin knows how to tell a story. Readers come to know many individuals in the course of this book, and Fagin draws us into their lives through his fine writing. The science can be complicated, but Fagin breaks it out in ways that never faltered. Any reader who lives in a neighborhood with a mix of business and residential interests will relate to the community relationships described in this book. Anyone living in an industrial area will be especially interested in learning what happened in this New Jersey community. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Toms River from amazon.com.

Tapestry of Fortunes

Reunion. A friend my wife and I first met four decades ago lives by the advice from C.S. Lewis: “Don’t postpone joy.” Elizabeth Berg’s novel, Tapestry of Fortunes, offers comparable advice to readers. The death of a close friend leads protagonist Cecilia Ross to wonder what she has been waiting for. Berg uses the journey of Cecilia’s reunion with a friend from decades earlier as the motif to explore close relationships and the choices we make about how and where we live. Strong female relationships are unveiled in this short novel, which is sweetly and gently presented to those readers who love wholesome stories. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Tapestry of Fortunes from amazon.com.

Friday, May 3, 2013

The Kingmaker's Daughter

Lively. I’m looking for two things when I read historical fiction: a reasonably close adherence to real history, and a presentation of historical characters who come to life through the author’s ability to make them fully rendered personalities. Philippa Gregory does that and more in her novel, The Kingmaker’s Daughter. The War of the Roses period in English history is rife with excitement, and Gregory has written other novels focused on specific characters of the period. In the current book, the focus is primarily on Anne Neville, daughter of Richard, Earl of Warwick, and her sister, Isabel. Richard chooses mates for his daughters hoping that one or the other Neville girl will become Queen of England. Gregory’s 400+ pages of politics, battles, setbacks and advances will entertain any reader who enjoys finely written historical fiction. Most of all, readers will feel that we know many of these characters as individuals and care deeply about what happens to them. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase The Kingmaker’s Daughter from amazon.com.

Six Years

Conundrum. Harlan Coben delivers a lot of suspense in his novel, Six Years. Protagonist Jake Fisher is a college professor who reads about the death of the man who stole the love of his life from him six years earlier. Jake fell quickly in love with artist Natalie Avery, but she suddenly married Todd Sanderson. When Jake reads of Todd’s death, he decides to attend the funeral in hopes of seeing Natalie again, despite his promise to her that Jake would never try to locate them. In the course of more than 350 pages, Jake tries to unravel the mystery of Natalie. The intricate plot was entertaining, but I never quite understood Jake’s love for and obsession with Natalie, especially their quick attachment, then how Jake could have spent six years less obsessed and then consumed anew. My willing suspension of disbelief faltered from the beginning, and I was left not caring much about what happens. Readers who like suspense novels as well as Coben diehard fans are those most likely to enjoy this novel. Rating: Three-star (It’s ok) Click here to purchase Six Years from amazon.com.

The Blue Book

Voyage. My patience was strained to its limits as I read A.L. Kennedy’s The Blue Book. I was getting a headache trying to figure out what was going on. Set on a transatlantic ocean liner, the narrator is a woman on a voyage with her fiancee when she encounters a former lover and fellow con artist. After I set the book aside to let my headache subside, I eased back into the voyage, leaving myself in Kennedy’s hands. I enjoyed much of the finely written prose, and found some parts witty. By the end, I was glad to have finished the novel, and felt somewhat accomplished in that I made it to the end of the book without an additional headache by no longer trying to dissect the stream of narrative. This novel will appeal most to patient readers of literary fiction who are comfortable with confusion and uncertainty. Rating: Two-star (I didn’t like it) Click here to purchase The Blue Book from amazon.com.

Black Irish

Home. Stephan Talty packs his debut novel, Black Irish, with interesting characters, a twisting plot, and a setting that will appeal in a special way to those living in or from western New York. Protagonist Abbie Kearney is a Harvard educated police detective who has returned to Buffalo to be close to her adoptive father, an ailing retired police detective. Talty presents the closed community of Irish South Buffalo with detailed precision and insight, given that he was raised in Buffalo by Irish immigrants. Talty riffs on what makes a home, and the family and connections that include and exclude others. Readers who like grisly crime fiction with interesting characters and engaging plot are those most likely to enjoy this novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Black Irish from amazon.com.

The House of Special Purpose

Romanovs. Readers who enjoy character-driven historical fiction are those most likely to enjoy John Boyne’s The House of Special Purpose. Boyne structures the novel in a clever way, allowing readers to savor protagonist Georgy Danilovich as he looks back on his life from 1981 at age 80. The timing shifts often both forward and backward as we learn the story of Georgy’s life during the Russian Revolution when he was close to the Romanov family. The core of the novel is a love story between Georgy and his wife, Zoya. Boyne successfully takes periods in history that are well known and enlivens them with the energy of fully developed fictional characters that engage readers to care about what happens to them. Boyne’s writing soars often, and the story he tells is creative and entertaining. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The House of Special Purpose from amazon.com.