Thursday, April 24, 2014

Astonish Me

Ballet. There’s a terrific ensemble cast of two generations of characters in Maggie Shipstead’s novel, Astonish Me. There’s a meshing of relationships based mainly in the world of professional ballet. It’s also a story of passion alongside the ways in which we act to get on with life when we face our limitations. The gifted and the ordinary are side by side, and are caught up in desire, love and betrayal. The multiple sets of relationships both repeat themes and stand unique. I found myself immersed in the world of these individuals and was entertained thoroughly by this finely written novel. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase Astonish Me from

Brown Dog

Feast. If you are familiar with the character Brown Dog from Jim Harrison’s many novellas to feature him, treat yourself to all those stories and a new one assembled in one collection titled appropriately, Brown Dog. If you’re new to B.D. or to Harrison, you’re in for a special treat if you read this book. Brown Dog tries to lead a simple life on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula until it inevitably gets complicated. He does odd jobs, fishes and hunts (sometimes in season), and never says no to an opportunity for sex or alcohol. Thanks to Harrison’s fine writing, this Everyman is a complex and interesting character through whom readers can see a wide range of human behavior. I felt stuffed and satisfied after feasting on this collection, even after reading some of the stories that I’ve read more than once before. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase Brown Dog from


Persuasion. I find myself lost for words in trying to describe a novel about the power of words. How strange is that? I can’t even assign a specific genre to Max Barry’s interesting novel, Lexicon, but if pressed, I would lean toward dystopian. What I can say is that I was entertained by this unusual novel. Protagonist Emily Ruff is a San Francisco street person eking out a living from three card monte. Her persuasive skills are noted by recruiters for an organization that learns how to use the power of words to control others. Her skills are formidable, and she falls in love with a man who seems immune from the power of her words. Emily is used to test the power of a word called a bareroot that carries remarkable power. There’s violence, intrigue and clever twists throughout the novel, and like many dystopian novels, there is also the overpowering impact of love. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Lexicon from

Frog Music

Songs. The setting for Emma Donoghue’s novel, Frog Music, is California, mostly during the hot summer of 1876. Using great dialogue and descriptive language, Donoghue leads readers back and forth over short time periods. On one level, this novel is a murder mystery, which will satisfy readers who like that genre. On another level, this is a character study, especially of protagonist Blanche Beunon, a burlesque dancer and mother of a young son. All the characters and the setting are enhanced by the words Donoghue uses to help us see and even smell the places described. The songs of that period provide another level of context for the plot and for insight into what life was like in San Francisco at that time. Readers who appreciate fine literary writing will find much to enjoy in this novel. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase Frog Music from


Blindness. Walter Mosley uses the temporary blindness of protagonist Sovereign James as a way to alert readers to what we may not see in his finely written novel, Odyssey. Sovy is not the mild-mannered, middle-aged human resources manager he may appear to be. His work has been revolutionary in intent, which he reveals once he becomes blind, so others can see what he has done. His relationship with Toni is passionate and Sovy helps her find a new way of being. Mosley is a philosopher with great insight into human nature. In this short novel, he presents interesting characters in a creative way, and helps all readers gain a deeper understanding of the darkness and light in our lives. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Odyssey from

Bertie Plays the Blues

Change. The latest bundle of serial installments from The Scotsman about the fictional people at 44 Scotland Street in Edinburgh by Alexander McCall Smith is titled, Bertie Plays the Blues. All the familiar relationships in this series are moved slightly forward in this collection of eighty short installments. Six and a half year old Bertie has become so sad at his life under the domination of his mother, Irene, that he offers himself up for adoption on eBay. Angus and Domenica are engaged to be married and have to consider real estate options. Matthew and Elspeth have triplets and are rescued by a nanny who brings their house to order, a house that will change soon. For fans of this series, there’s some advance in the relationships, and a joy in the familiarity of the people and the setting. Read an excerpt or two of these short installments to see if this series will be interesting to you. I find that I can read a few installments at a sitting and be quite entertained. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Bertie Plays the Blues from

The Headmaster's Wife

Broken. Readers who are comfortable with uncertainty in a novel, and are willing to yield to an author’s blurring of appearances and reality, are those most likely to enjoy reading Thomas Christopher Greene’s literary novel, The Headmaster’s Wife. Arthur appears to be the dignified and stable headmaster of a Vermont prep school, but his behavior seems to indicate someone more troubled, especially after he is found naked in New York’s Central Park. From a variety of current and past memories and points of view, readers learn about the life of Arthur and his wife Betsy. One of my favorite passages (p.215): “And then she realizes that they are more alike than she has imagined. Like her, he is broken. And she thinks perhaps this is what love is: letting someone else see that part of you that shatters like glass. All of us are broken in our own way.” If something in that passage captures your fancy, chances are you’ll enjoy reading this novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Headmaster’s Wife from

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History

Pattern. Science writing for general readers can be a real challenge. How well does an author remain true to the science presented and also present information that engages non-scientific readers? Elizabeth Kolbert meets that challenge in her book, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. She reviews prior mass extinctions of species and assembles the pattern of the sixth: the way man is changing the biosphere. She places events in the broader context of life’s history. Kolbert draws on the work of biologists, botanists, geologists and others to help all readers understand what we are doing to our world. This is a finely written book about a difficult subject and any general reader will come away from it with increased knowledge and a deeper concern about our future. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Sixth Extinction from

The Accident

Manuscript. I opened Chris Pavone’s novel, The Accident, with low expectations. After all, how good could a thriller be if set in the boring world of publishing and media? After a few dozen pages, I was hooked, and realized the unlikely setting for a thriller added to the entertainment. Pavone’s plot involves a manuscript that provides shocking revelations about a media mogul and is written by an anonymous author. Through fast-paced action, well-developed characters, and an intriguing number of backstories and subplots, I was thoroughly entertained by this novel. Readers who like thrillers that require close attention are those most likely to enjoy this book. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Accident from

Monday, April 7, 2014

The Counterfeit Agent

Installment. Is there no end to the need for protagonist John Wells to save the world? Apparently not. In the eighth installment of this series by Alex Berenson titled, The Counterfeit Agent, Wells returns with a familiar cast and scoots around the world to figure out what’s going on to ratchet up anxiety over Iran’s nuclear program. Just when readers are led to think that John Wells will settle into a more normal life, he makes the choice to go back into harm’s way. Not only do things remain somewhat unresolved by the end of this novel, but also there’s the reader’s realization that there may be no choice remaining for us other than reading the upcoming ninth installment. I can’t wait. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Counterfeit Agent from

The Midas Murders

Crafty. Be warned: if you read The Midas Murders by Peter Aspe, you may be setting yourself up for reading every book in this series as they are translated from Flemish. Set in the beautiful city of Bruges, Belgium, the protagonist is police inspector Van In, a crafty, moody and often whiskey-sodden character. The city and police inspector are a perfect pair. Van In has to set aside some personal problems, including the foreclosure of his house, to investigate the murder of a German visitor and the bombing of the statue of a Flemish poet. In’s romantic relationship with prosecutor Hannelore Martens provides another respite from his troubled life, alongside his work. Aspe respects the intelligence of readers with a complicated case, and despite all the possible distractions, In gets to the bottom of things by the end. This was my first exposure to Aspe, and when I finished this second installment, I added the first in the series to my reading queue. I’m hooked. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Midas Murders from

The Last Days of California

Journey. I expected to read a few pages of Mary Miller’s debut novel The Last Days of California, and then set it aside from boredom. I didn’t think I would enjoy reading about a car trip with a family leaving Alabama to get to California in time for the rapture. Instead, I was entertained by the way Miller presented family dynamics with efficiency. As farfetched as it seems, I totally understood how fourteen year old protagonist Jess felt an obligation to keep her older sister’s pregnancy a secret from their parents. Miller’s descriptive language provided visual realism for the motels and other settings presented. As a journey which might have been the last few days of the lives of these characters, it was a trip I enjoyed immensely, thanks to Miller’s great writing. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Last Days of California from

What We've Lost Is Nothing

Inclusion. The setting for Rachel Snyder’s debut novel, What We’ve Lost Is Nothing is the village on the border of Chicago where I live, Oak Park, Illinois. Renowned as the home of Frank Lloyd Wright at the beginning of the 20th century, and for the architectural legacy of the homes he built in the community, the town is also recognized for its efforts at racial and economic integration and the inclusion of citizens of any persuasion or categorization into every element of village life. Snyder uses that setting as the backdrop for this well-paced and finely written novel about what happens to the people on a block in this community following a burglary. Underneath the stated values of the characters there is fear, loneliness and prejudice. The title refers to the way one character described the aftermath of the burglary. It takes a lot of effort to include everyone to build a strong community. When something happens to disrupt life, it doesn’t take much for the spirit of inclusion to break down. Readers who enjoy fiction that describes familiar human behavior and explores contemporary challenges in living together are those most likely to enjoy reading this well-written novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase What We’ve Lost Is Nothing from

Dance of the Reptiles: Rampaging Tourists, Marauding Pythons, Larcenous Legislators, Crazed Celebrities, and Tar-Balled Beaches: Selected Columns

Sharp. I am not a regular reader of the Miami Herald, so I don’t read Carl Hiaasen’s weekly column in that paper. When a collection of those columns like the latest titled, Dance of the Reptiles, comes out, I binge read all the selected columns. I gave myself no reprieve: I read all the columns in one sitting. Hiaasen writes sharply with a point of view that leaves nothing to the imagination about where he stands. Readers who like well-written commentary, whether in agreement or disagreement with Hiaasen’s views, will find a lot to enjoy in this collection. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Dance of the Reptiles from

The Execution

Appearances. Things are not as they appear in Dick Wolf’s second novel to feature protagonist Jeremy Fisk. In The Execution, Fisk teams up with Mexican Federal Detective Cecilia Garza to search for a deadly assassin known as Chuparosa, who leaves an image of a hummingbird on his victims. Wolf tells a great story with perfect pacing, and explores the themes of grief, loneliness and revenge. Fans of action thrillers are those most likely to enjoy this novel, especially those who can absorb descriptions of violence. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Execution from

The Rosie Project

Comedy. Readers looking for an enjoyable romantic comedy need look no further than the debut novel by Graeme Simsion titled, The Rosie Project. Protagonist Don Tillman is a genetics professor who has created an orderly life for himself in response to the position he holds on the autism spectrum. All the parts of his life from work to meals have been calibrated with precision. His social life falls short so he starts what he calls The Wife Project, and develops a questionnaire to sort out potential candidates. After Don meets Rosie, a bartender and doctoral student who is searching for her biological father, Don’s life turns upside down. He starts The Father Project to help Rosie obtain and analyze DNA samples from likely candidates. The descriptive language in the novel creates visuals that entertained me, and the development of these interesting characters kept me smiling and laughing throughout. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Rosie Project from

This House Is Haunted

Resolute. Readers who have read all of Dickens more than once and still crave a Victorian ghost story should rush out at once to read John Boyne’s novel, This House is Haunted. Boyne’s writing should please both fans of this genre as well as general readers who appreciate good writing. The life of protagonist Eliza Caine becomes upended following the death of her father. She has to leave her London home which had been leased since her income is inadequate to pay the rent. She accepts an advertised job as governess to two children at Gaudlin Hall. Upon her arrival, the glorious gothic action commences. Boyne’s fine writing keeps the story from becoming cliché. Eliza is a resolute character whom Boyne develops with care. I was thoroughly entertained by this excursion to a genre that I read very rarely. Thanks to Boyne’s skill, I was totally entertained. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase This House is Haunted from


Sober. I’ve been surprised by the effect of my reading the Harry Hole series by Jo Nesbo out of sequence. I know and enjoy this character well from Nesbo’s recent novels and now that earlier novels are being released in English translations, I’m finding even more pleasure in exploring the world with a younger Harry Hole. In Cockroaches, Harry is sent to Thailand to assist in solving a case involving the Norwegian ambassador. True to form, Harry drinks to excess on the flight from Norway. In a surprise move, he remains sober while investigating the case, and is constantly tempted by drink and drugs. If Bangkok didn’t already exist, Nesbo would have had to make it up, since Harry is made for a seedy place just like it. Readers who like this series and crime fiction overall are those most likely to enjoy this novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Cockroaches from

Visitation Street

Neighborhood. I was entertained by Ivy Pochoda’s novel, Visitation Street. In some respects the most completely developed character in the novel is the setting, the Red Hook neighborhood of Brooklyn. Pochoda develops a reader’s understanding of Red Hook through descriptive language and through the wide cast of characters she presents as they pursue their hopes and dreams in this neighborhood. Using the mystery genre as the backdrop for displaying Red Hook in all its complexity, Pochoda led readers through various dead ends in trying to figure things out. Beyond a mystery, I read this novel as a story of redemption, and on that level, I was more satisfied. Readers willing to explore what a well written debut novel has to offer should take a look at this one. Rating: Three-star (It’s ok) Click here to purchase Visitation Street from

Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge

Meandering. There are two types of stories in the collection from Peter Orner titled, Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge: short and shorter. I enjoyed reading both types. Orner has the skill to present wit or devastation in just a few paragraphs. We don’t ever find out the complete life or story, but we get the condensed essence. Orner meanders from one time period and place to another in this collection. Each story includes finely written prose and cohesion. No matter how short the story, I consciously paced myself to read only one story at each sitting. I wanted to absorb what Orner did in one story before I started to read another. Readers who enjoy a wide range of short stories are those most likely to savor this finely written collection. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge from

Blackberry Pie Murder

Comfort. After a lot of installments in a fiction series, I find that I either keep reading and overlook ongoing faults, or stop reading the series because I anticipate that nothing new will happen. Joanne Fluke’s Hannah Swensen series is one that I am willing to keep reading. In the latest installment, Blackberry Pie Murder, all the familiar characters are back, and glacial progress is made in their slow-moving relationships. All the familiar plot elements return: Hannah discovers a dead body, cookies and other sweets are made, and recipes are presented for readers to try out at home. I read this series as a brief diversion, especially when I’m looking for something to satisfy my sweet tooth, both in eating and in reading. I’m comfortable with approaching these novels with low expectations from a reading perspective, and high expectations for good cookies. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Blackberry Pie Murder from

American Romantic

Portrait. Readers who appreciate fine writing and who like the development of complex characters who embody the nuances and contradictions of our human condition, are those most likely to enjoy reading Ward Just’s latest novel, American Romantic. Just presents the life of Harry Sanders, a career diplomat. The formative events in Harry’s life took place when he was assigned to Vietnam in the early 1960s, when he was in his twenties. He finds love with a German woman, Sieglinde, but she abruptly leaves the country without saying goodbye. He goes on a clandestine assignment into the Vietnamese jungle, and comes away from the experience with scars both physical and psychological. Years later, he marries and his diplomatic career advances, but the effects of Vietnam, both love and tragedy, remain vivid in his life. Were there still romantics in the latter part of the twentieth century? In Just’s portrait, Harry is a romantic, and a complex, fully developed complex character. Readers who like that in a novel will love this finely written book. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase American Romantic from


Sprint. Fans of action thrillers will delight in the way Patrick Lee begins his novel, Runner, with immediate pulse-quickening action, and most readers will like the way he maintains a quick pace right to the very end of the book. Sam Dryden, a widower and retired special forces operative, finds himself running during the night when an eleven year old girl, Rachel, crashes into him in the dark. As the exposition unfolds, readers learn of Rachel’s special skills, and how competing government contractors are working to develop methods for mind control. All Sam’s expertise comes into play as he tries to protect Rachel. I read this novel swiftly and was entertained throughout. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Runner from

Bread and Butter

Tension. Michelle Wildgen grabbed me in the first few pages of her novel titled, Bread and Butter. She whetted my appetite to read more about this cast of characters who work in restaurants. When the youngest of three brothers returns home after a short life in academia and other pursuits to open a new restaurant, the stress and tension in relationships among the brothers takes center stage. Wildgen captures sibling relationships with great skill in the early parts of the novel. By the middle, the exposition slowed, and all relationships involved stress and tension for a variety of reasons. Just when my attention began to drift, Wildgen spiced up the narrative and brought the novel to a satisfying conclusion. Those who work in restaurants will know better whether she represents that crazy worklife with accuracy. For me, I was satisfied with this finely written presentation of contemporary life and relationships. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Bread and Butter from

The Case of the Love Commandos

Identity. Fans of character-driven crime fiction are those most likely to enjoy reading Tarquin Hall’s latest Vish Puri novel titled, The Case of the Love Commandos. Readers of the earlier books in the series will enjoy the reprise of the familiar cast of characters, and the way in which Hall presents with a sharp eye for detail contemporary issues of life in India. In this outing, there’s an exploration of caste differences, genetic testing, rape, corruption and murder. Both Puri and his mother continue to use their skills to get to the bottom of what’s happening. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Case of the Love Commandos from