Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Some Luck

Iowa. The ordinary lives and simple language and dialogue presented by Jane Smiley in her novel, Some Luck, may lead some readers to overlook the elegance of this wonderful novel. In these ordinary lives in Iowa from the 1920s to the 1950s, we discover interesting and complex characters experiencing all the dimensions of life. I found myself caring deeply about what happens to them. I marveled at the great insight Smiley shows about the inner lives of young children. Her beautiful and descriptive language brought the setting to vivid display. This is the first of a trilogy, and I, for one, am thrilled that Smiley is back in Iowa, writing the story of America through an interesting rural family. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase Some Luck from amazon.com.

Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life

Lost. Every few pages or so I found myself offering a fist bump to author William Deresiewicz as I agreed wholeheartedly with so much of what he has to say in his book titled, Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life. Deresiewicz observed his elite students at Yale arriving with great ambition and a long list of achievements, and leaving with good grades but adrift when trying to figure out the purpose of their lives, and ill equipped to think critically and creatively. This book can be seen as a manifesto for the benefits of a liberal education, especially for our best and brightest students. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase Excellent Sheep from amazon.com.

The Hundred-Year House

Refuge. Readers who enjoy clever writing will find hours of pleasure when reading Rebecca Makkai’s novel, The Hundred-Year House. The house in the title is an estate named Laurelfield, near Chicago, and it provides the setting for a meandering plot that starts in 1999, proceeds back to 1955, then 1929, and finally 1900 when the house was built. The crumbs of family secrets and personal stories that Makkai leaves behind in each section become a delightful repast by the time the novel concludes. The estate is used as a refuge by a community of artists for many years, and Makkai’s exploration of both refuge and community add a dimension of depth to this finely written novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Hundred-Year House from amazon.com.

Bad Paper: Chasing Debt from Wall Street to the Underworld

Spreadsheets. Jake Halpern takes readers inside the fascinating world of bad debt collection in his book titled, Bad Paper: Chasing Debt from Wall Street to the Underworld. Na├»ve readers like me will be shocked by the people and practices that Halpern describes. Through the personal stories he uses to illustrate what’s happening, Halpern brings to life something that might have been a boring story about a small corner of the world of finance. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Bad Paper from amazon.com.

From the Dead

Relations. The crime novel titled, From the Dead, by Mark Billingham, is another in his series featuring Detective Inspector Tom Thorne. Two cases preoccupy Thorne: a new case in which Thorne and the prosecutors were unable to convict a suspected child abductor; and an old case in which someone who was thought to have been murdered seems to be alive. That’s enough to generate an engaging plot. What Billingham does so well is develop the tension in the relationships between so many complex characters. Parents and children, lovers, husbands and wives. The range of behavior for all the characters is a mix of good and bad, just as it is with each of us. Thorne himself behaves in ways that display a wide range of his strengths and weaknesses. The revelations of feelings among closely linked people made this crime novel deliver an extra bonus to those readers who like to read fiction that resembles the complexity of our own lives. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase From the Dead from amazon.com.

Bad English: A History of Linguistic Aggravation

Malleable. I was greatly entertained by Ammon Shea’s book, Bad English: A History of Linguistic Aggravation, until he skewered me with one of those “misuses” that drives me nuts. Then, of course, I laughed at my umbrage. Shea revels in how malleable English is, and that frequent use can lead to acceptance, no matter what the grammar scolds may desire. I loved his list of 221 words now in common use that were once called out as being in error. Lovers of language who make the occasional “mistake” will love reading this book. Editors should brace for blows when writers use this book as a weapon to support word selection. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Bad English from amazon.com.

The Boy Detective: A New York Childhood

Walk. If you were born before the mid-1950s, and spent any part of your childhood in New York City, those early years will come alive as you read Roger Rosenblatt’s memoir titled, The Boy Detective: A New York Childhood. Part of the book is structured as reflections as Rosenblatt walks around Gramercy Park. Readers feel as if we are walking with him. The detective motif adds to the pleasure of this book: the detecting involves gaining some understanding about what kind of life he’s had. The walks trigger memories of the detecting by his nine-year-old self. He reflects on detectives and writers who walked these same New York streets. Above all, Rosenblatt’s lyrical writing brings pleasure to any reader who appreciates fine writing no matter what the subject matter. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Boy Detective from amazon.com.

The Mad and the Bad

Destruction. I enjoy reading crime fiction, and I can’t believe it’s taken me so long to finally read a novel by the French writer Jean-Patrick Manchette. It seemed as if I finished reading The Mad and the Bad just a few minutes after I started it. The characters and the plot are presented at a breakneck pace, and Manchette excludes any superfluous exposition. The plotline is a path of delightful destruction and Manchette’s targeted social critique made the story even more enjoyable. Fans of crime novels are those most likely to enjoy this book and others by this French master. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Mad and the Bad from amazon.com.

The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century

Improve. Grammar scolds are unlikely to enjoy reading Steven Pinker’s book titled, The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. Those readers (and writers) who prefer to understand the reasons for certain rules of writing style will find great pleasure from reading this book. Some of us may be inclined to try harder to improve our writing style, thanks to Pinker’s fine way of presenting a positive case to encourage improved writing. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Sense of Style from amazon.com.

The UnAmericans

Identity. There are eight superb short stories in the debut collection by Molly Antopol titled, The UnAmericans. It’s usually a steep challenge for writers to develop characters fully within the confined space of the short story. Antopol’s characters are so deeply developed that I re-read at least two of these stories to see how she achieved so much complexity within just a few pages. Many of the stories explore the theme of identity, and Antopol drew me into some of the deep questions she explores, and made me feel deeply for the situations faced by her characters. Fans of short stories are those readers most likely to enjoy this finely written collection. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The UnAmericans from amazon.com.

I Pity the Poor Immigrant

Snippets. Mix together equal parts of crime, violence, Jewish identity, the past and the present, and you get the components of Zachary Lazar’s novel, I Pity the Poor Immigrant. Lazar presents one snippet from the past, moves to another from the present, and alternates forward and back, to and fro, until he brings all the elements to completion at the end of the novel. I used up a lot of patience trying to get into the novel, and never felt comfortable with the erratic narrative. This is one of those books that made me feel better when I finished it than I felt while reading. Rating: Three-star (It’s ok) Click here to purchase I Pity the Poor Immigrant from amazon.com.

10:04

Language. Fans of literary fiction will marvel at the finely crafted prose in Ben Lerner’s novel, 10:04. I enjoyed the wit and the skill with which Lerner seems to observe space and time in ways that are both vivid and flexible at the same time. The novel’s narrator draws readers into his life in New York City in ways that were engaging and hilarious. If you like clever well-written literary fiction, reading this book should be an enjoyable experience for you. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase 10:04 from amazon.com.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

The Cairo Affair

Information. Olen Steinhauer draws from recent world events to assemble a great spy novel titled, The Cairo Affair. He riffs on the theme of information, how to get it and how to separate perceptions from reality. Steinhauer weaves together the work and relationships of interlocked characters using marriage and infidelity as a backdrop for the plot. Readers need to pay close attention to identify the sources of betrayal. Those who savor complexity will find plenty in this novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Cairo Affair from amazon.com.

The Liar's Wife

Awareness. I’m a big fan of novellas. Structured as tightly as a short story, finely written novellas can uncover insights about human behavior without requiring the creation of an entire world as is usually done with a novel. Mary Gordon offers four finely written novellas in her new book titled, The Liar’s Wife. Gordon explores what happens when individuals experience higher levels of awareness, especially about suffering. Readers who enjoy fine literary prose will find a lot to enjoy in each of these novellas. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Liar’s Wife from amazon.com.

Boy, Snow, Bird

Family. I’m surprised that I finished reading Helen Oyeyemi’s novel, Boy, Snow, Bird. Having read reviews about how finely written this novel is, I was prepared to be delighted. Instead, the prose frustrated me. The themes of identity and family played out erratically with multiple narrators, and the modern fairy tale seemed forced and without the expected moral to the story. Read a sample to gauge your interest before leaping into this unusual novel. Rating: Two-star (I didn’t like it) Click here to purchase Boy Snow Bird from amazon.com.

A Better World

Transitional. I finished reading Marcus Sakey’s novel, A Better World, feeling deeply unsatisfied. This sequel to Brilliance moved the story along, but left so many plot themes hanging that an interested reader is forced to await the next installment. I’m likely to read that novel and can consider this book as a transition between the first novel that I loved, and the next one which I hope provides more resolution to the narrative. Rating: Three-star (It’s ok) Click here to purchase A Better World from amazon.com.

A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal

Fraternity. Readers who are interested in espionage after World War II are those most likely to enjoy reading Ben Macintyre’s book titled, A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal. I knew a lot of this story before reading this book, and understood how so many of the players went to the same schools, belonged to same clubs, and were vulnerable to betrayal because it was unimaginable that one of “our kind” would behave dastardly. Macintyre’s research uncovered one particular relationship: between traitor Kim Philby and his best friend, Nicholas Elliott. That pivotal relationship and its consequences serve as the centerpiece for this interesting account of cold war activities. Rating: Three-star (It’s ok) Click here to purchase A Spy Among Friends from amazon.com.

Edge of Eternity

Conclusion. Penny pinching readers who like to receive the maximum number of words per dollar spent on book buying should love selecting a Ken Follett novel. The third and final installment in his Century Trilogy exceeds the thousand pages each from the first two installments. Edge of Eternity continues tracing the lives of five families through the twentieth century. Fans of historical fiction should enjoy Follett’s attention to detail, while some may disagree with the points of view he expresses through the characters he selects. I knew when I started reading the series that I would see it through to the end. I enjoyed many pleasant hours with this huge cast of characters, and I am now satisfied that Follett brought the trilogy to a conclusion. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Edge of Eternity from amazon.com.

Lost for Words

Incomparable. I expected that I would be bored by Edward St. Aubyn’s witty novel titled, Lost for Words. I expected that a satiric novel about a book award would be too much inside baseball for me to endure. Instead, St. Aubyn’s finely written prose hooked me at once, and his development of interesting characters roped me in for a pleasant reading experience. When I finished the novel, I realized that St. Aubyn provided an important message. We create literary prizes that do the impossible: they compare works of art that are truly incomparable. Those involved in judgments often have conflicting agendas. Fans of good writing are those most likely to enjoy this witty novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Lost for Words from amazon.com.

The Stone Wife

Chaucer. Readers who delight in a well-constructed crime novel that includes ample red herrings are those most likely to enjoy reading the 14th installment in the Peter Diamond series by Peter Lovesey titled, The Stone Wife. A Chaucer scholar is murdered at an auction while he is bidding on a stone sculpture which he believes depicts the Wife of Bath. While Diamond takes center stage on the case, the whole team contributes to solving the crime. I was especially pleased with all the exposition of Ingeborg’s undercover work to identify the source of the murder weapon. Mystery fans can enjoy this novel as a standalone, but those who read the series will find enhanced reading pleasure from deeper insight into all the fascinating recurring characters. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Stone Wife from amazon.com.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Terminal City

Grand. The latest Alexandra Cooper novel by Linda Fairstein is titled, Terminal City. The familiar cast of characters returns as does the formula that works so well: a criminal investigation that puts Alex in some personal peril; a fast-moving plot; witty dialogue and repartee; and detailed information about some part of New York City that will enlighten readers. This time out the location is Grand Central Terminal, and Alex is in fear for her life more than once. Her relationship with Mike seems a bit rocky throughout this novel, and fans will look forward to the next installment in the series to learn what’s next for these engaging characters. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Terminal City from amazon.com.

The Virgin Way: Everything I Know About Leadership

Success. Richard Branson has never read a book about leadership, so why should anyone bother reading his book titled, The Virgin Way: Everything I Know About Leadership? The simple answer is that because of Branson’s wild success in so many different enterprises over four decades, he has a lot that he knows about leadership and any leader would benefit from paying attention to what he has to say. This serial entrepreneur and billionaire uses a very conversational style, packed with anecdotes, to share with readers some of the things he’s done that worked as a leader, as well as some of his mistakes. All of this is interesting reading for any leader who listens to others. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase The Virgin Way from amazon.com.

Personal

Sniper. Nothing is straightforward in the 19th Jack Reacher novel by Lee Child titled, Personal. Reacher is lured back into service to track down a marksman who is suspected of plotting an assassination at an upcoming G8 summit. The skill level of this sniper is such that there are only a handful of individuals in the world who match the profile. One of the suspects has a history with Reacher, and that personal dimension is the reason for the title of this exciting and fast-paced thriller. The cast of characters, heroes and villains, are drawn with skill, and Child’s continued development of Reacher will please fans of this series. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Personal from amazon.com.

The Care and Management of Lies

Morale. I opened Jazqueline Winspear’s novel, The Care and Management of Lies, with skepticism. Having just completed Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, I wasn’t sure that I had the appetite for another novel set during World War I. Winspear hooked me at once: the simplicity of her story brought with it tremendous power as she explores the nature of love and duty. Protagonist Kezia Marchant has left the city that was familiar to her, and has barely settled into life as a farm wife when her husband, Tom, enlists in the army. Winspear captures the scope of love and duty through the way she used the device of Kezia’s morale-building letters to Tom that described the delicious meals that she was making with love for him. Tom’s whole unit wanted him to read her letters aloud to them. With a handful of characters and finely written prose, Winspear offers readers a memorable and touching story. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Care and Management of Lies from amazon.com.

Rose Gold

Complexity. Fans of Walter Mosley’s superb writing are those most likely to enjoy his latest Easy Rawlins mystery titled, Rose Gold, although a first-time reader would be very satisfied with this interesting and complex work of crime fiction. Set in 1960s California, Mosley describes with great skill the people, places, and context of that time. As I read this novel, I found myself embedded in the culture Mosley presents and almost smelled and tasted what he describes. I was entertained from beginning to end by the prose and the plot. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Rose Gold from amazon.com.