Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The White Princess

Tudor. Readers looking for a fat and juicy historical novel are those most likely to enjoy the latest book from Philippa Gregory titled, The White Princess. Protagonist Elizabeth of York finds her life upended after the battle of Bosworth field. Gregory develops Elizabeth and each historical character with sensitivity to historical facts, a view on speculative theories, and a lively writing style. I find that I enjoy the ways in which well-written historical fiction can help me think about historical figures in a broader way, beyond the few sound bites that I recall of their place in history. Gregory’s fine writing makes me think about these characters as more complete human beings, and her development of them in all their complexity provided me with hours of reading pleasure. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase The White Princess from amazon.com.

The Shelter Cycle

Cult. I finished reading Peter Rock’s The Shelter Cycle and found myself thinking about the many ways in which my past formed me into the person I am today. Protagonists Francine and Colville grew up in a cult, and when they reunite after fifteen years, their past takes center stage. They are survivors but remain in a state of emotional constraint as a result of their experience. Rock writes with great skill that many readers will enjoy. I found myself disinterested in the characters and the plot. Read an excerpt before plunging into this book. Rating: Three-star (It’s ok) Click here to purchase The Shelter Cycle from amazon.com.

The View from Penthouse B

Demographic. Every now and then my eclectic reading has me stuck inside a book that is targeted at someone very different from me. Sometimes, I just stop reading. For some reason, I finished Elinor Lipman’s novel, The View from Penthouse B, even though I retained the feeling throughout that the book was written for the audience of women over 50. While I was mildly entertained by the novel, I never felt that the characters became fully formed. While Lipman throws big challenges at the protagonists, they respond in ways that were predictable and simplistic. If you’re inside the target demographic for this novel, you may want to read a selection to see if you might like it. Rating: Three-star (It’s ok) Click here to purchase The View from Penthouse B from amazon.com.

Zero Hour

Countdown. If the summer has passed you by without letting you savor sticky cotton candy or some fried food on a stick, it’s not too late to enjoy the reading equivalent from a novel like Zero Hour by Clive Cussler. This novel in the NUMA series follows the predictable and reliable formula: Kurt Austin comes close to death while outsmarting a villain. Fans will enjoy the wit and dialogue from a familiar cast of characters. As usual, Cussler weaves a good story, keeps the action lively through a countdown toward peril, and the bad guy loses in the end. The short amount of time I spent with this novel delivered a large dose of entertainment. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Zero Hour from amazon.com.

The Silver Star

Courage. Readers looking to read something that will promote good feelings should consider Jeannette Walls’ novel, The Silver Star. I finished the book with a reminder about the difference that a single individual can make on a community, and the ways in which courage can overcome injustice. Walls could have crossed a line into sentimentality, but she avoided that with skill. This is a short novel that can be read quickly. When I finished it, I felt refreshed and optimistic. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Silver Star from amazon.com.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Big Brother

Size. The two words in the title of Lionel Shriver’s novel, Big Brother, reveal something of what’s inside. Pandora’s brother, Edison, flies in for a visit, and when she arrives at the airport to pick him up, she doesn’t recognize him. He has gained hundreds of pounds. In a way that will resonate with members of any dysfunctional family, Pandora says nothing to Edison about his weight. These ingredients of sibling relationships, obesity, and dysfunction are blended well with broader relationships including spousal, parental and offspring. Shriver writes with great skill, blending all these elements into a novel that presents modern American life with clarity and precision. You may not see a copy of this novel at your local Weight Watchers, but when you see it, be sure to buy, read and enjoy it. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase Big Brother from amazon.com.

The Light in the Ruins

Fire. Readers who enjoy the variety of a smorgasbord are those most likely to enjoy reading The Light in the Ruins, a historical novel by Chris Bohjalian. I found that the novel contained a morsel of this, that, and the other, which never unified enough to satisfy me. The setting is Tuscany from the mid-1940s to the mid-1950s. There’s a story of the Nazi occupation of a villa with an Etruscan tomb on the property where partisans have hidden. Two female protagonists are scarred by war: one by the fire that burned her; another by her love for a Nazi occupier. At the end of the time frame there is a serial killing spree that Bohjalian lays out in pieces using changes in time sequence to explain the backstory. As expected, everything makes sense by the end. Rating: Three-star (It’ok) Click here to purchase The Light in the Ruins from amazon.com.


Character. The crime fiction that I like best tends to come from those novels in which the characters are well-developed, and their responses to violence and crime come across as authentic and familiar. Karin Slaughter’s Will Trent series features a very complicated protagonist who may not be an everyman, but whose behavior rings true in every grisly or romantic situation. The latest novel, Unseen, has such an abundance of graphic violence, that I found myself choosing to read it only in daylight hours. Slaughter released some of the tension in the novel by alternating time sequences between the current action and the days leading up to it. This device also allows a reader to take a break to reduce one’s heart rate. Readers who like character-based crime novels and can tolerate a ton of violence should consider reading this novel and the whole series. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Unseen from amazon.com.

The English Girl

Restoration. After I’ve finished a difficult or challenging book, I like to pick up a novel that I am sure will entertain me. I’ve found Daniel Silva’s Gabriel Allon series to provide reliable and thrilling reading. In The English Girl, art restorer and Israeli spy Allon, is specifically requested to search for and find a missing English woman. Silva teases out the reasons Allon was chosen, and he constructs a plot that’s full of entertaining twists, worthy adversaries for Allon, and enough suspense that led me to read this novel quicker than I expected. Readers who like thrillers with strong protagonists, complicated plots and fast-paced action should consider reading this novel and the other books in this series. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The English Girl from amazon.com.

A Treacherous Paradise

Journey. We readers demand much from the fiction we select to read: we want to be entertained by an interesting story that engages us (plot); we want to recognize authentic human behavior from characters that are as deep and as complicated as ourselves; we expect dialogue to ring true to the language we speak and hear; and we want the descriptive language to make us believe we can see the setting where the action occurs. Henning Mankell did all those things for me in his novel, A Treacherous Paradise. The rags to riches story of protagonist Hanna Lundmark on her journey from Sweeden to Portuguese East Africa in the early twentieth century maintained my interest. Her ownership of a brothel with a monkey as her closest friend may pique your interest. Mankell used the issues of poverty, wealth, racism, gender equality, and colonialism as a backdrop to action that revealed how difficult it is for us live in community with respect and understanding of our differences. Readers who like strong female protagonists and unusual settings are those most likely to enjoy this novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase A Treacherous Paradise from amazon.com.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Return to Oakpine

Band. Ron Carlson avoids all the perils that a lesser writer might have experienced when writing a novel that involves a small town and high school. Return to Oakpine is set in a small Wyoming town and features four central characters. As high school boys they formed a band that began and ended in 1969. Two of them left town after high school, and two stayed. Thirty years later, Jimmy has come home from life as a novelist in New York City to his parents who care for him as he dies of AIDS. Mason came home to sell his parents’ house, where he finds a better life than the one he’s been living as a successful lawyer in Denver. Frank stayed in town and owns the local bar. Craig owns the hardware store. Oakpine has changed in three decades, but the small town values remain pretty consistent. Through Craig’s high school son, Larry, we see both continuity and change. Jimmy helps Larry learn to play the guitar, and the other band members try to revive the group. Carlson develops each character with depth and intensity, revealing the broad scope of human behavior. This novel is one of those rare gifts: a finely written story, brief enough to read quickly, and deep enough to think about for a long time. Most readers will finish the novel feeling pretty good about human nature. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase Return to Oakpine from amazon.com.

Always Watching

Cult. The protagonist of Chevy Stevens’ novel, Always Watching, is the quintessential wounded healer: a psychiatrist with unresolved issues of her own. Dr. Nadine Lavoie begins to treat a patient who came under the influence of the same cult leader who hurt Nadine. The novel’s plot moves rapidly through Nadine’s desire to help Nadine and ensure justice is done. Stevens crossed the line into melodrama too much for my taste. While I enjoyed the fast-paced action, my willing suspension of disbelief was strained by Nadine’s lack of professional boundaries and the plot action that bordered on the absurd. The characters were incompletely developed, and by midway through the novel, I found myself not caring much about what happened to any of them. Read a sample before you get involved in this novel and the cult. Rating: Three-star (It’s ok) Click here to purchase Always Watching from amazon.com.

Harvard Square

Assimilation. Scores of novels present stories of the experience of immigrants in America. Andre Aciman’s contribution, Harvard Square, contrasts the assimilation of the narrator with that of his friend, Kalaj. The narrator is visiting colleges with his son, and that leads him to reflect on his own college days and the friendship he and Kalaj developed as fellow immigrants from North Africa. Aciman captures the longing to fit in as well as the desire to be at home, whatever and wherever that is. Aciman’s fine writing and focused dialogue kept me interested and engaged from beginning to end. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Harvard Square from amazon.com.

Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation

Elements. The latest quirky food book by Michael Pollan is titled, Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation. Pollan explores the ways in which the fundamental elements of fire, water, earth and air can transform things that are great to eat and drink. The process of cooking with these elements also transformed Pollan and the ways he cooks, and can transform a reader’s connection to the food and drink we consume. The structure of the book presents how Pollan tries to master one recipe using each of the four elements. I liked his writing and enjoyed reading about the adventures he pursued in cooking. Foodies and those who love cooking are those readers most likely to enjoy this book. Also, if you watch the Food Network or any cooking shows, you’ll probably like this book. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Cooked from amazon.com.

The Flamethrowers

Artists. There are four hundred pages of beautiful prose in Rachel Kushner’s novel, The Flamethrowers. I found myself rereading some sentences to marvel at her selection of just the right words to complete a description or to convey an emotion. Protagonist Reno is a motorcycle racing artist who was named after the city where she was born. Kushner presents the life of artists, revolutionary politics, identity and ideas. The path isn’t straight and narrow, and most art requires close attention. For those readers with the patience to pay close attention and who are likely to appreciate the beautiful prose, the payout will be a high level of satisfaction. Most readers will know after reading an excerpt whether the novel will be appealing and worth the effort. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Flamethrowers from amazon.com.

Simpler: The Future of Government

Complicated. It’s complicated to make things simpler, especially in the area of government regulation, but it’s achievable, as Cass Sunstein elaborates in his book, Simpler: The Future of Government. Readers who have an interest in behavioral economics and choice architecture will find a lot to enjoy in this book. Sunstein’s writing is lively, and he clearly enjoys the topic. I found his exploration of costs and benefits to be cogent and thought provoking. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Simpler from amazon.com.

The Bat

Holy. Those readers who love character-driven crime fiction can be voracious in wanting to consume every word written about a favorite protagonist. To satisfy this demand, we can finally read Jo Nesbo’s first Harry Hole novel, The Bat. Set in Australia, the younger Harry behaves just like the older one: impulsively, doggedly, intoxicated and creatively. In Sydney, Harry is introduced as “Holy,” so that may be how his name should be pronounced, although Nesbo, whose name is pronounced “Yo,” has become reconciled to being called “Joe” by many English-speaking readers. All Harry Hole fans will love this first installment to help round out the story of this great detective character. New readers can start here or elsewhere and find a well-told story and a complicated and compelling protagonist. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Bat from amazon.com.

Montaro Caine

Coins. There’s an imaginative story buried inside Sidney Poitier’s novel, Montaro Caine. The problem I had with the book was trying to enjoy that story while suffering through poorly written prose. Dialogue was weak, characters poorly developed, and the plot momentum was erratic. If you think that a story about mysterious coins that may help our civilization is appealing, read a sample of this novel before plunging in. I learned a valuable lesson about myself from reading this book: I’m more likely to stick with an ebook that I’m not enjoying than I am a print book. I had nothing to throw across the room in frustration, so I kept swiping pages until it was finished. Rating: Two-star (I don’t like it) Click here to purchase Montaro Caine from amazon.com.

The Movement of Stars

Astronomer. Readers who like historical fiction, especially when it features strong and interesting female protagonists, are those most likely to enjoy Amy Brill’s finely written debut novel, The Movement of Stars. Brill was inspired by the life of a 19th century astronomer and the novel she’s written places readers in a very well-drawn setting: a Quaker community on Nantucket Island in the mid-19th century. Protagonist Hannah Price comes of age in a closely knit faith community, learning to perform scholarly work, attracted to a black man limited by racism, constrained by family expectations, and striving to fulfill her potential. Brill presents Price as a very complete character, packed with all the conflicting emotions and challenges that each of us faces in our lives. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Movement of Stars from amazon.com.

Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth

Overshadowed. A brouhaha following Reza Aslan’s interview with Lauren Green on Fox News boosted sales of his book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. That’s good for Aslan and for those readers who might not have picked up this book had they not heard all the buzz. Aslan is a scholar and a Muslim who presents a very readable and accessible narrative about the historical Jesus. His scholarship draws on the work of many others in recent decades who have explored all sources of information about the historical Jesus. Aslan notes how the theology of Paul about Jesus the Christ overshadowed the historical Jesus. Both the historical Jesus and the Jesus of faith are worth reading about, and Aslan’s book will provide a great basis for book discussion among both believers and non-believers. If the minor kerfuffle over this book gets people from different religions talking about faith, that’s a good thing for everybody. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Zealot from amazon.com.