Friday, September 26, 2014

The Children Act

Living. The best novelists present readers with fully formed, complex characters, and place them in situations that reveal something true about our human condition, or what it means to live. Ian McEwan examines the choice to live or to die in his novel titled, The Children Act. Protagonist Fiona Maye is a judge in the family court in London, and her work life and home life are radically different. About to turn sixty, her childless thirty-five year marriage is strained because of her husband’s infidelity. Tension at work accelerates when she is called into an emergency case of a seventeen-year-old boy who has refused a lifesaving blood transfusion for religious reasons. Her visit with the boy pairs two intelligent characters struggling with what it means to live and to die, and the choice to live or die, quickly or slowly. McEwan reveals all this in a compact novel that delighted me from beginning to end. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase The Children Act from amazon.com.

The Ghost of the Mary Celeste

Adrift. Patient readers who enjoy historical fiction and who can tolerate a disjointed narrative are those most likely to enjoy reading Valerie Martin’s novel, The Ghost of the Mary Celeste. The Mary Celeste was a ship found adrift and seaworthy in the Atlantic in 1872 with no crew or passengers on board and one lifeboat missing. Martin takes that true event, and offers this novel as an exploration of what happened. Along the way, she introduces the spiritualism movement of that time as well as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle who wrote a fictional piece about the Mary Celeste himself in 1884, and became involved with spiritualism in the 1920s. Martin riffs on all these threads in the novel, and creates the atmosphere of the time with her descriptive prose. My patience was strained often while I read this novel, and by the end was pleased only that I finished. Rating: Three-star (It’s ok) Click here to purchase The Ghost of the Mary Celeste from amazon.com.

Summer of the Dead

Relatives. The third crime novel by Julia Keller to feature protagonist Bell Elkins is titled, Summer of the Dead. Bell is the Raythyne County prosecutor, and there’s a killing spree going on in Acker’s Gap, West Virginia. If that weren’t enough, her sister Shirley has come to live with Bell after her release from prison. Elkins is one of those strong female protagonists whose character deepens with each installment in the series. In this novel, her memories of childhood abuse come to the surface, and Keller is able to delve into the ways in which relatives can treat each other with cruelty as well as with great love. As a standalone crime thriller, most readers will find the plot exciting. As an installment in the series, fans will enjoy the progress made in this installment and look forward to the next. I enjoyed reading this novel, as I did the earlier novels in the series. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Summer of the Dead from amazon.com.

Dear Committee Members

Academy. The structure of Julie Schumacher’s novel, Dear Committee Members, led me to think that I would lose interest quickly. We learn about the life of protagonist Jason Fitger, a creative writing college professor, through his letters of recommendation for students and staff. I expected inside baseball about life in academia. Instead, thanks to Schumacher’s fine writing, I laughed at the prose in Fitger’s letters, from the snarky to the caring messages he sends. Schumacher entertained me in three ways with this novel: through humor as noted; through poignant social commentary; and in developing a character who by the end of the novel becomes fully formed through the exposition in the letters of recommendation alone. Readers who enjoy fine prose along with a good laugh are those most likely to enjoy this unusual novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Dear Committee Members from amazon.com.

The Eye of Heaven

Emerald. A few pages into the sixth novel in the Sam and Remi Fargo series by Clive Cussler titled, The Eye of Heaven, had me double check to see if I had read it already. The formula was so familiar that only the publication date convinced me that this is a new installment. The title refers to a giant emerald. The wealthy Fargos travel the globe while they are hunting for treasure that they usually do not keep for themselves. They eat and drink well, staying in fine lodging, thanks to a talented support staff. They face worthy adversaries and prevail. In this outing, some of the villains are especially competent and crafty. For a few hours of predictable escapist reading, this series and this installment fits the bill for those readers who like this form of light reading. Rating: Three-star (It’s ok) Click here to purchase The Eye of Heaven from amazon.com.

Fighting Chance

Justice. Fans of character-driven crime fiction are those most likely to enjoy the latest Gregor Demarkian novel by Jane Haddam titled, Fighting Chance. This is the 29th novel in this series featuring a cast of Philadelphia characters led by Gregor, who retired from the FBI’s behavioral science unit. In the current novel, his friend, the Armenian priest Father Tabor, has been arrested. Plot twists abound, red herrings swim in many directions, and most readers will close this book full of satisfaction with a story well-told. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Fighting Chance from amazon.com.

Living with a Wild God: A Nonbeliever's Search for the Truth about Everything

Open. Rarely can readers observe the process of opening a mind. Thanks to Barbara Ehrenreich’s memoir, Living with a Wild God: A Nonbeliever's Search for the Truth about Everything, interested readers can do just that. Believers would conclude that the dissociative episodes Ehrenreich experienced in her youth involved some manifestation of God, a glimpse of the transcendent. Following a bout with cancer and the loss of many papers in house hit by a hurricane, Ehrenreich paid attention to a journal from her youth that survived, and represented a message from her past self to her current self. Thanks to her examination of the journal and her recollections of her youth, we have this fascinating book that tries to describe the process of reaching understanding and insight. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Living with a Wild God from amazon.com.

The Map and the Territory: Risk, Human Nature, and the Future of Forecasting

Lessons. Alan Greenspan muses on the lessons that economists and citizens can draw from the financial crisis of 2008 and its aftermath in his book titled, The Map and the Territory: Risk, Human Nature, and the Future of Forecasting. I got bored trying to get into this book multiple times in recent months, but finally plowed through one afternoon. There’s enough clarity in this book to attract general readers, and enough economic expertise to compare his views with other experts. I found some pleasure in Greenspan’s acknowledgement about how his expectations were not met, and what he learned from the crisis. For any reader who has read the work of other economists in the past decade, there are themes in this book that resonate with what others have also concluded. Fellow nerds who want to listen to the voice of decades of experience will find wisdom and advice on these pages. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Map and the Territory from amazon.com.

The Secret Place

Boarders. The latest novel by Tana French titled, The Secret Place, zooms in on a minor character, Stephen Moran, from an earlier novel in this Dublin Murder Squad series. The setting for the crime and the plot of the novel take place at St. Kilda’s boarding school for girls. French draws readers into the complicated behavior of adolescent girls, especially when they live together. The action begins when Holly Mackey, daughter of Moran’s mentor, Frank Mackey, turns up at the police station with a piece of information that reopens a cold case. Much of the action takes place during one intense day, although French manages reductions in the tension through chapters set at the time of the crime, a year earlier. Fans of Tana French and crime fiction will find a lot to enjoy in this novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Secret Place from amazon.com.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Just What Kind of Mother Are You?

Distractions. I prejudged Paula Daly’s debut novel, Just What Kind of Mother Are You?, and let it sit on my bookshelf unread for almost a year. I assumed it was targeted to women and I thought it would have little interest for me. I sat down and read it this week, and I was surprised and delighted. I wish I had read it sooner. Daly presents protagonist Lisa Kallisto as an overworked, distracted and frazzled mom. The plot surrounds a missing girl, a friend of Lisa’s daughter. Lisa feels responsible and guilty that because of her many distractions, she didn’t do what she could have done to prevent the assumed abduction of the girl. Daly captured the lives of busy parents, and then layers on issues of class and wealth. The novel explores the nature of relationships and manipulation, and reveals that things are not always what they seem when we observe the lives of others. This short novel was a delight to read, and I recommend it to any reader, especially to parents. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Just What Kind of Mother Are You? from amazon.com.

One Kick

Abuse. Kick Lannigan is the protagonist of a new series by Chelsea Cain, and is introduced to readers in a novel titled, One Kick. Kick was abducted by a child pornographer at age six, rescued five years later, and is now twenty one. Cain explores various aspects of child abuse in the novel, injects Kick with lock picking and self-defense skills, and requires her to come to terms with her past. The action in this thriller moves quickly, the images are vivid, and the characters are presented with care and precision. Squeamish readers may find the violence hard to read. By the end of the novel, I came to understand Kick more fully, and wonder what Cain will do in the next installment. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase One Kick from amazon.com.

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage

Self. I finished reading Haruki Murakami’s novel, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, so soon after I started it, that it was as if I had dreamed it. If Murakami’s prose is this mesmerizing in translation, I wonder what it’s like in Japanese. This novel is an exploration of self, drawn both from the inner life of protagonist Tsukuru Tazaki, and from the pilgrimage he makes from a condition of loneliness to reconnect with a circle of friends from his youth. Through the lens of Tsukuru’s ordinary life, and from his dreams, we can come to understand something new about ourselves, and about our common human condition. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki from amazon.com.

The Rule of Nobody: Saving America from Dead Laws and Broken Government

Rebuild. When it comes to public policy, have we become so polarized by ideology that there’s no room left for common sense? Philip K. Howard’s new book, The Rule of Nobody: Saving America from Dead Laws and Broken Government, uses punchy prose and a clear point of view to explore our current situation and what could be done to rebuild our system of government. Any reader interested in public policy should consider reading this book, especially if you are frustrated by our current state of politics. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Rule of Nobody from amazon.com.

Before, During, After

Trauma. There’s so much emotional tension in Richard Bausch’s novel, Before, During, After, that I found myself taking breaks from reading it. Bausch explores trauma in this novel as he presents a love story. Personal trauma occurred on 9/11 as well as national trauma. Readers are presented with the lives of protagonists Natasha and Michael before 9/11, during that day, and after. The contrasts are significant, and Bausch uses finely written prose to draw readers into each section with great care and precision. I read the novel just as the 13th anniversary of that day drew near, and I appreciated how well Bausch captured the essence of trauma and its aftermath. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Before During After from amazon.com.

Close Call

Lucky. Fans of spy novels are likely to enjoy the latest Liz Carlyle novel by former MI5 head, Stella Rimington, titled Close Call. Luck turns out to be both good and bad for various characters in this fast-paced story grabbed from the headlines. Middle East tension, gun smuggling, and terror at home keep the action moving in this novel. I read it quickly and was entertained. The title turns out to be particularly apt. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Close Call from amazon.com.

The Glass Ocean

Craft. I started to read to read Lori Baker’s debut novel, The Glass Ocean, three different times over the course of several months. Her finely crafted prose, packed with descriptive language, wore me down the first two attempts I made to get into the novel. The third time was the charm. Packed with the atmosphere of the Victorian era in which it is set, I needed to let myself be drawn into that time and setting to allow Baker to work her magic. By the end I was delighted with this story of a woman’s recollections of her life in the mid-1800s. The title refers to the glass objects of sea life crafted by her father. Baker applies a similar attention to detail and craftsmanship in her prose, and patient readers who enjoy finely written literary fiction will be rewarded. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Glass Ocean from amazon.com.

Pro Cycling on $10 a Day: From Fat Kid to Euro Pro

Clean. I don’t know whether Phil Gaimon is better as a writer or as a professional cyclist. I do know that I enjoyed reading his memoir titled, Pro Cycling on $10 a Day: From Fat Kid to Euro Pro. If your impression of professional cycling is limited to Le Tour de France or Lance Armstrong and the use of banned substances, consider reading about the cycling world from the perspective of a clean rider with writing talent. He tells his own story with wit and more candid disclosure than most memoirists would offer. I enjoyed this story of passion, guts and cookies. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Pro Cycling from amazon.com.

The Memory Key

Palaces. Readers who enjoy police procedurals and can tolerate a quirky protagonist should consider reading the latest Alec Blume novel by Conor Fitzgerald titled, The Memory Key. Blume’s independence comes from being an outsider: an American working in Italy. The current case places him in political minefields, as he’s asked to shadow an investigation being conducted by the Carabinieri. Inserted throughout the plot are excerpts from a book Blume is reading about memory, and he reflects on using the technique of memory palaces. His relationship with Caterina becomes more strained in this installment, and Blume considers a change in Roman real estate for himself, a palace all his own. I enjoy the quirkiness and complexity of Blume. I find his behavior more unexpected than that which happens with most recurring protagonists. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Memory Key from amazon.com.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

The Miniaturist

Tapestry. I didn’t fully appreciate how much Jessie Burton accomplished in her debut novel, The Miniaturist, until I finished it. Set in 17th century Amsterdam, the novel’s protagonist matures within a short period of time from an eighteen-year-old na├»ve bride to a decisive and responsible woman. Burton’s prose is exquisite: descriptive enough to bring the places to life, but never overdone. Most of the characters are outcasts of one form or another, and struggle to establish their place within an intolerant society. As with all good novels, things are not as they appear, especially when it comes to wealth or success. Burton plays that out with great skill and to the satisfaction of those readers who enjoy finely written prose and can tolerate suspending enough disbelief to go where the author leads us. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase The Miniaturist from amazon.com.

The Ballad of a Small Player

Addiction. There was so much to dislike about the behavior of protagonist “Lord” Doyle in Lawrence Osborne’s novel, The Ballad of a Small Player, that I don’t know what the author did to keep me reading and interested in what happens to this unlikeable character. A former London lawyer, Doyle stole funds from a client, moved to Hong Kong, and has become obsessed with baccarat. His level of risk taking is off the charts, and his addiction is severe. All that matters is the next bet. A run of good luck comes with consequences more significant than what happens with losses. Osborne injects an element of the supernatural that will appeal to some readers, and repel others. Any reader who has an interest in addiction or risk-taking will find some kindred elements in this unusual and atmospheric novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Ballad of a Small Player from amazon.com.

The Long Way Home

Search. The tenth novel in Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Gamache series finds Armand retired and living contentedly in the village of Three Pines, Quebec. The novel titled, The Long Way Home, explores on many levels with multiple characters the search for the balm that will make the wounded whole and will cure the sin-sick soul, as in the spiritual, There Is a Balm in Gilead, and in a book Gamache is reading. Neighbor Clara Morrow tells Gamache that her husband is missing, and that leads to an expanded cast of characters searching for the lost man. I was drawn into the series by Penny’s fine writing, and this installment brought my satisfaction to an even higher level. Any reader who enjoys fine prose with well-developed and complex characters will find lots of reading pleasure from this novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Long Way Home from amazon.com.

The Heist

Aging. The latest Gabriel Allon novel by Daniel Silva titled, The Heist, proceeds at a slower pace than earlier novels in this series. The Israeli superspy and art restorer is getting older, he’s about to become the father of twins, and he has agreed to become the next head of the Office. The chance to recover a missing Caravaggio masterpiece leads Allon to take a break from restoring a Veronese in Venice. The break returns him to Corsica and Israel and then to a bank in Austria. For loyal readers of the series, this installment continues to develop the complexity of the character of Gabriel Allon. New readers expecting an exciting thrilled might not be as enthused as those of us who have read the whole series. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Heist from amazon.com.

Back Channel

Trust. One pleasure that I get from reading novels is the escape from any contemporary concerns while visiting a different time and place. I spent many satisfying hours visiting a global situation even more frightening that the hotspots causing so much anxiety today. Stephen L. Carter’s novel, Back Channel, is set in Washington in 1962 during the Cuban missile crisis. Kennedy and Khrushchev and the countries they lead are poised for disaster as the temptation to use nuclear power to disable an adversary becomes almost irresistible. Warhawks on both sides are gaining influence and need to be contained to avoid nuclear war. Direct communication between leaders is missing, so actions can be subject to erroneous interpretation. Carter injects 19-year-old Cornell student, Margo Jensen, as protagonist and a trusted intermediary between Kennedy and Khrushchev. The action in the novel is thrilling, the situation fraught with tension, and Carter’s prose kept me interested from beginning to end. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Back Channel from amazon.com.

A Colder War

Mole. Fans of spy fiction should be satisfied after reading Charles Cumming’s latest novel, A Colder War. Protagonist Tom Kell (introduced in an earlier novel) took the fall in a torture scandal and his reputation as an MI6 agent has been damaged. When the head of station in Turkey is found dead, Amanda Levene, the head of MI6, suspects there may be a mole wreaking havoc on espionage operations in that part of the world. Levene recruits Kell to try to get to the bottom of things, which are complicated by the fact that the dead spy was her lover. I enjoyed character exposition and development, plot momentum and the interesting details of espionage. I was entertained by this novel and my attention remained focused throughout the book. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase A Colder War from amazon.com.

Casebook

Snooping. Part of growing up and making sense of the world and our place in it involves observation of others, especially our parents. Miles Adler-Rich, the protagonist of Mona Simpson’s novel, Casebook, goes from observation to spying and snooping, especially about his parents. As with many other kids, including his friend, Hector, Miles lives in a family that has experienced divorce. The boys don’t quite understand their parents (who does?), and conclude that there must be impenetrable family secrets involved. What Simpson does so well in this novel of contemporary American domestic life is present a love story alongside the process of growing up. Thanks to using Miles as the lens through which we understand these families, Simpson offers a fresh perspective on what can seem overdone by other authors. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Casebook from amazon.com.