Thursday, February 20, 2014

Death of the Black-Haired Girl

Inured. The presence of evil may be so pervasive that most of us are inured to the many manifestations of it, and we may proceed regularly with choices that lead away from the good and toward evil. Robert Stone explores the choices of many characters in his novel, Death of the Black-Haired Girl. Maud is the student referred to in the book title, and her written pro-abortion views call attention to her by those who disagree. She is having an affair with a professor, Steve Brookman, who chooses to be unfaithful to his wife. Maud’s father, Eddie Stark, dying of emphysema and grieving her death, approaches the Catholic church where his wife’s remains are entombed, with a request to bury Maud alongside her mother, and he is met with rejection rather than solace. A former nun, now a campus counselor, provides a moral compass, but she has also become accustomed to the presence of evil all around her. Stone offers those readers who enjoy fine literary prose a thought-provoking novel. Most readers will like neither the characters nor their behavior, but they reflect individuals who live in our communities and dull our sense of right and wrong. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase Death of the Black Haired Girl from

Guardians of Prosperity: Why America Needs Big Banks

Probank. Everyone who works for a bank (or who owns shares) should buy and read Richard X. Bove’s book, Guardians of Prosperity: Why America Needs Big Banks. This book challenges the populist vitriol against large banks, and explains why current regulation in response to the financial crisis will harm America. Bove writes in plain language for a general audience, explaining what banks do, and why large banks are needed. His viewpoint is different from that most readers find on the topic of large banks. For that reason alone, whether one agrees or disagrees with his views, this book contributes to broader understanding of this issue. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Guardians of Prosperity from

This Town: Two Parties and a Funeral—Plus, Plenty of Valet Parking!—in America's Gilded Capital

Sausage. Any reader interested in politics in Washington will likely enjoy reading Mark Leibovich’s lively book, This Town: Two Parties and a Funeral—Plus, Plenty of Valet Parking!—in America's Gilded Capital. For Washington insiders, the appeal of this book will be reading about themselves and those they know from the fishbowl. Outside the beltway, this book is something like watching sausage get made: many readers will come away from the book with a very queasy feeling about our political processes. Leibovich as an insider offers readers a perspective that’s unusual: something like an anthropologist when operating as a participant and observer at the same time. Any reader who likes to read about money, power and influence will enjoy this book. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase This Town from

Still Life with Bread Crumbs

Rediscovery. The title of Anna Quindlen’s novel, Still Life with Bread Crumbs, refers to a photograph by protagonist Rebecca Winter. Rebecca finds herself at age 60 still recognized as a prominent photographer, but her work is selling at a slow pace. Life in New York City is expensive, especially as the cost of care for her aging parents has become a strain. She moves to a cottage more rustic than quaint, and the opportunity for a renewed life presents itself. This novel will appeal to book clubs, especially those comprised of women of a similar age to the protagonist. The novel is a love story, endearing and gentle. If that’s what you like, there’s plenty of it in this novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Still Life with Bread Crumbs from

The Devil's Cave

Fraud. I set aside the fifth installment in Martin Walker’s Bruno Chief of Police series, The Devil’s Cave, the way one would let a fine wine age a bit before consuming it. Since the sixth installment was moving up in my queue, I could wait no longer, and zipped through this novel enjoying every page. The novel opens with a dead woman, marked with a Satanist symbol and accompanied by the accruements of a black mass. St. Denis’ police chief, Bruno Courrèges, is on the case, along with a familiar cast from earlier novels, and some fine additions. The plot moves quickly, and turns to real estate fraud. What happens to Bruno inside the cave may be the most dramatic plot action of all the novels so far. Fans will love this contribution to the series. Any reader who likes character based crime fiction will love this one. An added bonus can be found here with the beautiful descriptions of the Perigord and the consumption of lots of fine food. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Devil’s Cave from

An Officer and a Spy

Dreyfus. If, like me, you recall three or four facts about the Dreyfus affair, and if you like to read historical fiction, you’ll probably enjoy reading Robert Harris’ novel titled, An Officer and A Spy. Protagonist Georges Picquart works in intelligence for the French Army, and he slowly comes to realize that the charges that convicted Alfred Dreyfus of being a spy were false. What happened to this 19th century whistle blower provides the tension in the novel. While presenting enough detail to relate a cogent description of the actions and the cover-up, Harris enlivens all the characters by developing each character quite fully. Readers can understand the expectation of conformity within hierarchical institutions, and the impact of anti-Semitism on the integrity of the investigations. Harris does what most readers of historical fiction desire: he brings the time period to life, and presents a story that informs and entertains us. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase An Officer and a Spy from

Vatican Waltz

Prayer. Most fiction writers ask for our willing suspension of disbelief while the narrative of a novel unfolds. From the beginning to the end of his novel, Vatican Waltz, Roland Merullo tested my ability to maintain that suspension. Protagonist Cynthia Piantedosi is a single devout Catholic who prays daily and has on occasion intense spiritual experiences that her family members have called “spells.” The intensity of her prayer brings her a message from God: she is called to become a priest. Merullo proceeds to develop this theme from Revere, Massachusetts to Rome, packing the novel with lengthy descriptive language of Cynthia’s surroundings in almost every setting. Like most readers, I was surprised and taken aback by the unexpected ending, and closed the novel with my disbelief intact, no longer in a somewhat willing suspension. Rating: Three-star (It’s ok) Click here to purchase Vatican Waltz from

The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way

Rigor. Amanda Ripley examines what education is like in Finland, South Korea and Poland in her book titled, The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way. What could have been cold and boring comes alive through the stories of three American exchange students in those countries. Those countries that are doing well in education hold in common one theme: rigor. They use rigor in the teacher selection process, ensuring that only the best and brightest join the teaching profession. They also apply rigor in the classroom: setting high expectations for students and following a disciplined approach to ensuring those expectations are met. Any reader with an interest in education should consider this book as required reading. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Smartest Kids in the World from

The Daylight Gate

Twilight. Readers who like historical fiction are those most likely to enjoy a short and tightly written novel by Jeanette Winterson titled, The Daylight Gate. Set in England early in the 17th century, the plot involves the witch trials of that period. The title refers to dusk, and much of the atmosphere of the novel has a twilight feel to it. Protagonist Alice Nutter became wealthy from Queen Elizabeth I’s pleasure in the garments made from a dye Nutter created. Winterson achieves in this short novel exactly what I want from historical fiction: she presents complex characters, many based on the historical record, and describes the time and place with finely written prose. She grabbed my attention in the first few paragraphs, and I sped through this novel, finding pleasure throughout, despite much disturbing subject matter. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Daylight Gate from

The Valley of Amazement

Losses. Amy Tan’s latest 600-page novel is titled, The Valley of Amazement. Set in Shanghai, San Francisco and a little in upstate New York, the novel presents the lives of multiple generations across four decades starting early in the 20th century. Tan excels at describing the situation of women in society, and in this novel she leans heavily on the losses and setbacks in the lives of mothers and daughters. There’s plenty of sex, violence, love and death on these pages to last through many hours of reading. Amy Tan fans are those readers most likely to enjoy this novel. Some readers may find the story bloated and packed with more detail than necessary. I expected tension in the mother-daughter relationships, and found plenty of that in this sweeping novel along with much more to say about the condition of women at that time and in those places. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Valley of Amazement from

Actors Anonymous

Creative. I picked up James Franco’s debut novel, Actors Anonymous, out of curiosity. I wanted to see how good a novel this talented actor, director, screenwriter and artist could write. I found the novel to be creative and interesting. Franco uses multiple voices, came up with a structure from Alcoholics Anonymous and, and kept me interested to the end. The confessional nature of most of the book forced me as a reader to listen to more vulgarity and wrongdoing than I felt was necessary for the novel. I was bored by a lot of the novel, but still impressed by the creativity expressed. Those readers willing to cut some slack for a debut novel by an actor are those most likely to enjoy this book. Rating: Two-star (I didn’t like it) Click here to purchase Actors Anonymous from

Friday, February 7, 2014

A Permanent Member of the family

Economy. I’ve waited more than a decade for another short story collection from Russell Banks. At last, twelve stories, including four previously unpublished ones, have been assembled into A Permanent Member of the Family. One could teach for a semester using each of these stories as an example of the best contemporary representations of this genre. Banks uses just a few sentences to flesh out complex characters, and he sets them in situations that reflect the challenges of our contemporary lives. Many are struggling in relationships and facing financial difficulties. Always, there’s a moral component that is key to the story. I’m hard pressed to name a favorite from this dozen. I found each story worthy of a second or third reading, bringing pleasure and new insight each time. Readers who appreciate fine literary writing, especially those who like short stories, will find a lot to enjoy in this collection. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase A Permanent Member of the Family from

The Gods of Guilt

Jury. The latest legal thriller from Michael Connelly to feature Lincoln lawyer Mickey Haller is titled, The Gods of Guilt. With each new novel in the series, Connelly deepens Haller’s character for readers. Already the most likeable defense attorney, Haller’s shortcomings and flaws add to him being presented as a complex character, a fully formed human, just like us. Fans of the series will gobble up this new installment and come away with great satisfaction. New readers can start here or anywhere with Connelly and be well entertained. I found the plot interesting and the courtroom drama engaging. Readers who like crime fiction are those most likely to be satisfied by this entertaining one. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Gods of Guilt from

The Bones of Paris

Investigation. Fans of finely written crime fiction will find four successful components in Laurie R. King’s novel, The Bones of Paris. There’s a well-developed cast of complex characters, led by protagonist Harris Stuyvesant, reprised from her earlier novel, Touchstone. The setting is atmospheric and interesting: Paris in 1929 with a cast of celebrities including Man Ray, Ernest Hemingway, Cole Porter, Natalie Barney and Josephine Baker. Third, the plot is complex allowing Harris’ investigation to follow many leads. Finally, the dialogue and prose are well-crafted, allowing the narrative to proceed easily. I found part of the subject matter to be a bit gruesome for my taste, but that is often the cover charge with crime fiction. I was entertained and very satisfied by the end. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Bones of Paris from

Why Priests?: A Failed Tradition

Inquiry. Garry Wills has a well informed and inquiring mind. A recent book by this prolific author is titled, Why Priests? A Failed Tradition. Having started with the disclaimer that some of his best friends are priests and that he himself once aspired to be one, Wills goes on to make a case for why the priesthood was built on a shoddy foundation and is no longer necessary. Any reader looking for a clear viewpoint will find it here. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Why Priests from

Cold Tuscan Stone

Etruscan. Readers looking for a new and fresh crime series should consider reading the debut novel by David P. Wagner titled, Cold Tuscan Stone. Protagonist Rick Montoya has moved from Sante Fe to Rome to work as a translator. Montoya is an interesting and complex character, and Wagner offers readers an enjoyable beginning to what we hope will be a long series. In this outing, Montoya goes to the Etruscan city of Volterra to assist in an investigation. Wagner’s descriptive language brings the settings to live, and the plot was entertaining. I’m looking forward to the next installment. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Cold Tuscan Stone from


Complicated. One of the things I like most about Scott Turow’s crime fiction is the way the author respects the intelligence of readers. Turow presents a complicated plot in Identical, and leaves it to us readers to follow him through all the twists in the story. Turow’s protagonists are identical twins, one of whom is being released from prison in 2008 having served time for a 1982 murder. Turow brings us to the past to understand the present, and offers a wide cast of interesting characters. Readers who like crime fiction, especially novels that require paying close attention, are those most likely to be entertained by this book. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Identical from

Cockpit Confidential: Everything You Need to Know About Air Travel: Questions, Answers, and Reflections

Curiosity. Over the course of a few days, I zipped through airline pilot Patrick Smith’s book, Cockpit Confidential: Everything You Need to Know About Air Travel: Questions, Answers, and Reflections. I apologize in advance for saying this book has its ups and downs. For frequent fliers, there may a tidbit or two that seems new or fresh, mostly in the form of some elaboration on things experienced firsthand. For fearful and infrequent fliers, this book is likely to lead one toward greater comfort in flying because of the information conveyed. For me, I liked Smith’s point of view and personal reflections, and got a bit bored with some of his explanations. Read a sample before you commit to reading the whole book. Rating: Three-star (It’s ok) Click here to purchase Cockpit Confidential from

The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon

Cheer. I always feel happy when I read one of Alexander McCall Smith’s novels. The fourteenth in the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series is titled, The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon. Mma Makutsi is pregnant and that adds a lot to the development of the series. Mma Ramotswe finds herself with two cases: a beauty salon owner who seems to have an enemy, and an inheritance that is being claimed by someone who may not be the rightful beneficiary. As readers have come to expect, there’s a lot of life’s important lessons packed into a few pages. By the end, as always, I closed the novel feeling just a little better about human nature and the goodness that can be found in the lives around us. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon from

The Unknowns

Nerdy. The more I read Gabriel Roth’s debut novel, The Unknowns, the more I liked it. Protagonist Eric Mueller excels at writing computer code, and has struggled in relationships. The novel is narrated by Eric, so we see from his point of view the challenge of trying to apply the orderliness of code to the messiness of relationships. Roth keeps the narrative witty and clever, while building underneath a warm story of love, with a key question for all of us: is it always better to know? Readers who lean on the nerdy side are those most likely to enjoy this promising debut. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Unknowns from

The Prince of Risk

Combination. Christopher Reich packs two thrillers into one in his novel, The Prince of Risk. One of the thrillers involves a financial high wire act by a hedge fund manager who bets the house on a devaluation of the Chinese currency. The other thriller is a conspiracy to spy on 57,000 influential people around the world who are key players in business and government. Reich grabs the attention of readers with the violence he presents in the first chapter. The desire to answer the question, “what was that about?,” draws readers into the rest of the plot. Those readers who like action thrillers, especially when there’s a financial angle, are those most likely to enjoy the time spent with this entertaining novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Prince of Risk from


Hilarious. Readers taken with thirteen-year-old protagonist Madison Spencer to hell in Chuck Palahniuk’s 2011 novel, Damned, are back on earth with her in the sequel titled, Doomed. I laughed often throughout this hilarious novel, still enamored by Madison as a tour guide to Satan and the afterlife. Palahniuk’s prose hits my funny bone just right. Read a sample to see if you’re likely to be as entertained as I was. If you agree that it’s a matter of perspective to see our current condition as being pre-dead, chances are you’ll like this novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Doomed from

Exposure: Inside the Olympus Scandal: How I Went from CEO to Whistleblower

Outsider. The most unusual business story readers may ever encounter is Michael Woodford’s Exposure: Inside the Olympus Scandal: How I Went from CEO to Whistleblower. By virtue of position as President of Olympus, Woodford should have been an insider. After he gets an anonymous email calling to his attention signs of financial shenanigans, he investigates and goes to the company chairman and to members of the board of directors with his concerns. He asks to become CEO to give him the authority to get to the bottom of the scandal. Weeks after he becomes CEO, he’s fired. Having already shared the concerns about the likely financial fraud with the company’s independent auditors, the cover up by the perpetrators is doomed from the start. Woodford relates his side of this story, showing how he tried to get the board to do the right thing. Any reader interested in business, especially in the challenges of global concerns, will find this book fascinating to read. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Exposure from


Tesla. Readers looking for reliable entertaining action in a novel can find plenty of it in Clive Cussler’s novel, Mirage. Protagonist Juan Cabrillo, Chairman of The Corporation, is back on the Oregon, risking his life in heroic ways on land, under the sea and up in the air. This is a guy who shouldn’t be able to get a life insurance policy no matter what the premium, but somehow he survives every near-death encounter with his deadly foes. The key gimmick in this novel is something Nikola Tesla built a century ago, brought to life again by the Russians, and ready for exploitation by the Chinese. These worthy adversaries for Cabrillo provide fast-paced action and lots of high tech toys to deploy. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Mirage from

Jeeves and the Wedding Bells

Tribute. My first reaction upon hearing that Sebastian Faulks was writing a new novel reprising Jeeves and Wooster was: don’t mess with my Wodehouse. It was with trepidation that I opened Jeeves and the Wedding Bells, fearing the worst. After a dozen pages or so, my fears diminished, as I read what I’d call a tribute. I feared reading parody or a bumbling attempt at re-creation. Instead, the familiar characters come alive for contemporary readers, while remaining true to both the time period and the books by P.G. Wodehouse that preceded this one. If you’re a Jeeves & Wooster fan, take a gander at this new take on the old chaps. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Jeeves and the Wedding Bells from