Sunday, April 25, 2010

You Better Not Cry

Presents. Like much of life, the collection of stories from Augusten Burroughs titled, You Better Not Cry, represent a mix of the naughty and the nice. Readers are more likely to laugh than cry, although there are sad stories here that will at least lead to a wince. Burroughs knows how to write well, and each story is well constructed and accomplishes what the author set out to do. Some readers may prefer to read this away from the holiday season, so the lessons of disaster and redemption can be more distant from one’s own reality.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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The Paris Vendetta

Familiar. It could be that Steve Berry’s recurring protagonist, Cotton Malone, has started to grow on me. The sixth and latest thriller to feature the former Department of Justice hero is titled The Paris Vendetta, and reprises the Danish billionaire Henrik Thorvaldsen who wants to find out who killed his son. So, Cotton is hauled out of his Copenhagen bookstore on another adventure. Along the way there’s a search for Napoleon’s secret treasure. Berry isn’t a terrific writer, but readers who like a quick-to-read thriller might find a few entertaining hours reading this one.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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Details. Any reader picking up a work of historical fiction with over 600 pages of narrative should expect close attention to detail. Kurt Andersen delivers details by the yard in Heyday. Set in the mid-nineteenth century, readers who like that historical period will savor in what this book offers. Andersen sweeps across America from New York to California, while the events of the time come to boil and overflow. Science, adventure and love fill these pages with such detail that a reader feels present.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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The Golden City

Freedom. Be careful what you start. Having read the first two installments of John Twelve hawks’ Fourth Realm trilogy, I figured I had to plow on to the end of the third book, The Golden City. This series has been focused on personal freedom, and may resonate best with those readers who are concerned about restrictions on freedom in a connected society. As a novel, this book stumbles more than it excites, and the resolution wasn’t as satisfying as I anticipated. Those readers who worry about life on the grid may like this trilogy; others may wish the hours spent reading this had been used in other ways.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays

I skimmed parts of each essay in this collection. The writing seemed fine, but I just wasn’t interested enough to read them all.

Rating: Ennui
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The Lost Art of Gratitude

Care. Some prolific authors can tire readers with shallow novels and immature characters. I never seem to tire of reading Alexander McCall Smith. In the sixth novel featuring philosopher Isabel Dalhousie titled, The Lost Art of Gratitude, Smith continues to develop Isabel as a complex character. Her relationship with Jamie continues to deepen, her work as editor of the Review of Applied Ethics provides her with stimulation, and her son, Charlie, is now eighteen months old, and he brings her great joy. Isabel exudes her care for others in this novel, while she maintains a solid center of gravity which keeps her steady against any obstacles. First-time readers can easily start here and be satisfied with a novel that does not rely on its predecessors to be complete. Any reader who appreciates character-driven novels will likely enjoy this one.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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Thursday, April 8, 2010

In the Company of Angels

Freedom. Thomas Kennedy’s novel, In the Company of Angels, has finally been published in the United States. I can’t recall the last time I read as finely written a novel whose characters are as wounded as those in this book. Set in Copenhagen, Nardo is in a long term therapeutic recovery from torture in Chile. Michela has suffered physical abuse and the loss of a child. As each struggles with the effects of brutality, Nardo and Michela feel the glimmers of what freedom might be like. Their relationship and others are explored with great care. Readers who appreciate good writing and who want to spend some hours immersed in the lives of deeply troubled people are likely to enjoy this novel.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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Lit: A Memoir

Recovery. Mary Karr’s new memoir, Lit, continues to tell in finely crafted language the story of her dysfunctional life. I found myself rapidly turning these pages as she falls under the spell of alcoholism and eventually marches down the road to recovery. Hers is a lively story, packed with a bounty of issues and relationships, past and present. Smart, troubled artists can captivate our attention. In Lit, Karr does that in a masterly way, and I found that in some ways as she began recovery, I felt a restoration of my own.

Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended)
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Have a Little Faith: A True Story

Search. Readers looking for a touching story about real people will enjoy Mitch Album’s latest book, Have a Little Faith. He presents the lives of two men from different backgrounds, different faiths, and different places. Albert Lewis was the rabbi from Album’s hometown synagogue, and Henry Covington is an African American minister of a church in Detroit. What they share is hope and faith, and a love of God and people. These are inspiring lives that will lift the spirits of every reader.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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A Change in Altitude

Climbing. The most completely developed character in Anita Shreve’s novel, A Change in Altitude, is Kenya, or perhaps Mount Kenya. Set in that country in the 1970s, the protagonist Margaret is an American photographer who has relocated there with her physician husband, Patrick, who is a medical researcher in Nairobi. The tension rises when they decided to climb Mount Kenya with another couple. Events on the climb change the relationship between Margaret and Patrick. I found as I read the novel that I had trouble caring about these or other characters, while at the same time I found Kenya very attractive and appealing. Readers who appreciate a deeply developed sense of place may enjoy this novel, while those who prefer well-developed characters might do better to look elsewhere.

Rating: Two-star (Mildly Recommended)
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Alliances. The second novel of Robert Harris’ life of Cicero is titled, Conspirata, and I found I liked it even better than the first book, Imperium. Politics does make strange bedfellows, and Cicero finds himself isolated by changing alliances among his opponents. The financial and personal consequences are severe, and the orator can’t talk his way out of this jam. The mob and the army have senators who use them effectively, also to Cicero’s detriment. The Rome that Cicero saved seems to be a wholly different place. Readers who love historical fiction will savor the way in which Harris makes this tumultuous period of Roman history come alive, and how the character of Cicero becomes more complete and complex.

Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended)
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Wolf Hall

Machinations. Readers who enjoy historical fiction will experience delight from Hilary Mantel’s finely written novel, Wolf Hall. Almost six hundred pages and packed with a giant cast of characters, the novel is set during the reign of England’s King Henry VIII. The protagonist is Thomas Cromwell, who comes across as a more sympathetic and complex character than is described in history. Those readers whose knowledge of Cromwell and Thomas More comes from the Robert Bolt play, A Man For All Seasons, will find a darker More and a kinder Cromwell in Wolf Hall. Those readers who enjoy this period of history will find an easier time keeping track of the characters; others may need to keep referring back to the list of characters to keep the players straight. The political machinations are presented with a liveliness that makes an exciting historical time seem contemporary, while remaining true to its period.

Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended)
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Every Day in Tuscany: Seasons of an Italian Life

Salivate. One of the reasons for reading memoirs is to acquire a taste for the life of another person, and reflect on the similarities and differences to our own life. From her first memoir, Under the Tuscan Sun, Frances Mayes gave readers a glimpse of restoring an old house in Italy. Twenty years later the house, Bramasole, still needs work, and in her new memoir, Every Day in Tuscany, Mayes lets readers join her life at home and in travels around Italy. I found my mouth watering at the descriptions of food and meals, and I read with enthusiasm the recipes she includes on these pages. The book shines with finely written description of a lifestyle: the people, the meals, the places, and the flow of the seasons of the year. I could almost smell and taste as I turned these pages. Any reader who enjoys relaxed meandering will find pleasure reading this memoir.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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Monday, April 5, 2010

Stones into Schools: Promoting Peace with Books, Not Bombs, in Afghanistan and Pakistan

Building. Greg Mortenson’s follow-up to his inspirational best-selling Three Cups of Tea, is titled, Stones into Schools: Promoting Peace with Books, Not Bombs, in Afghanistan and Pakistan. This book builds on the last one, and conveys the huge impact that a single school can have on a community and a region. Along the way, readers are introduced to the lives of people who live different external lives from most Americans, but who share the same dreams for our children and our communities. The importance of the education of women in Afghanistan and Pakistan can’t be overstated, and Mortenson’s work and this description of it make the case clearly.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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The Silent Sea

Reliable. The Clive Cussler brand of action writing continues to provide reliable entertainment to those readers who like strong heroes, evil enemies, and lots of adventurous action. In the seventh Oregon series novel titled, The Silent Sea, protagonist Juan Cabrillo leads a team into hostile Argentina to recover a NASA satellite. Some opportunistic Chinese have been partnering with Argentines in Antarctica, and much of the context for the novel involves ancient Chinese sailing ships. Juan and his team travel the world to confront enemies, solve mysteries, and restore world order. Not bad in 400 pages.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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On the Brink: Inside the Race to Stop the Collapse of the Global Financial System

Complexity. Any reader impacted by the recent financial crisis will find something of value on the pages of Hank Paulson’s recollections of the turmoil at its epicenter. Titled, On the Brink: Inside the Race to Stop of the Collapse of the Global Financial System, Paulson presents his views and recollections of what happened, when, and who said and did what. This book reads like a novel, as Paulson paces the action well. As one might expect, he tends to put the best light on what he did and how he did it. He focuses intently on the collaboration between himself, Ben Bernanke and Tim Geithner. President Bush comes across as fully supportive of Paulson doing whatever was necessary to prevent a financial meltdown. This candid book reveals how much was done by the seat of the pants, and how complexity and interconnections led to actions that were both distasteful and necessary. It will be a long time before history weighs in with perspective on the actions during Paulson’s tenure as Treasury Secretary. In the meantime, his personal account is an important contribution to gaining insight into those times.

Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended)
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Hell Gate

History. Linda Fairstein’s 12th mystery novel featuring assistant district attorney Alexandra Cooper is titled, Hell Gate. This time out, the crime topic is human trafficking, and the subject of the history lesson about New York City is the story of some old large mansions that have not been torn down as the city has grown. Politics, crime, corruption and connections are sufficient enough to allow most readers to sit through the history class sections of the book to savor the unfolding action. Alex’s partner, Mike Chapman, keeps the repartee and tension sharp, and Alex’s French friend, Luc, remains an invisible presence this time out. I liked the history lessons in Hell Gate, but for some readers, the slowing of the action might be a distraction. Fans will appreciate every page that features this finely developed female protagonist.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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Sonic Boom: Globalization at Mach Speed

Clamor. I think that Gregg Easterbrook makes a single forceful point in his book, Sonic Boom: Globalization at Mach Speed: worldwide development is booming and the change will be messy, loud and disruptive. I kept thinking as I read this book that Tom Friedman presented much of this in his recent books. In a single global market where goods and services will be both cheaper and more widely available, entrenched players need to be nimble. Sonic Boom is an optimistic and opinionated view of the world economy that readers may find agreeable or disagreeable with one’s own view. Easterbrook presents no clear data to support his views, but I find his writing engaging enough to hear his views whether backed by facts or not.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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