Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Elegy for April

Family. Benjamin Black’s latest novel is titled Elegy for April. Quirke is back. Out of rehab for his alcoholism, Garret Quirke agrees to help his daughter find a missing friend. The writing is taut, with a great plot and well-developed characters. All the family relationships presented in the novel contain insights into these closest of relationships. Black is the pseudonym of award winning writer John Banville. The quality of writing here exceeds that of most mystery novels. The more Banville develops Quirke the more engaging a character he becomes. In this enjoyable installment, he’s almost endearing.

Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended)
Click here to purchase Elegy for April from amazon.com.

Known to Evil

Redemption. Walter Mosley continues to develop the protagonist Leonid McGill in his novel titled, Known to Evil. The motivation of private detective McGill is to act in ways that atone for his bad behavior, and it his redemption that becomes a life goal. In some ways McGill is both hero and everyman. Thanks to Mosley’s fine writing, the dialogue seems realistic, the characters are well-developed, and the insights about human condition are profound. The personal circumstances that led McGill to this moment in his life and those of society at large contain a randomness that’s sobering.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
Click here to purchase Known to Evil from amazon.com.

Hitch-22: A Memoir

Separation. Christopher Hitchens has a way with words, and he displays that skill in his memoir, Hitch-22. He’s a reluctant memoirist, and that shows by how much about his life he neglects to mention on these pages. His detachment from his own life seemed to make the book even more interesting. In the six degrees of separation, it seems that Hitchens can make most connections around the world in two or three. The cast of characters mentioned on these pages reads like a who’s who of global and literary affairs of the past four decades. The book also abounds with political theory and intellectual ostentation that will please many readers while alienating others. For me, it was a pleasure to sit back and listen to his life stories told with such finely selected words and to hear him place the greatest emphasis on his own astute and immense intellect and persona.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
Click here to purchase Hitch-22 from amazon.com.

In The Neighborhood: The Search for Community on an American Street, One Sleepover at a Time

Deliberate. Peter Lovenheim took the concept of “up close and personal” and expanded it when he began to explore a proposal with the people who lived on his street in suburban Rochester, New York. Lovenheim realized how isolated he and his neighbors were from each other, how little they knew about each other, so he knocked on a few doors and tried to change that situation. The approach he pursued with receptive neighbors involved him sleeping over at their homes one night and spending an entire day and night with the family. He describes this process and experience in an entertaining book titled, In The Neighborhood: The Search for Community on an American Street, One Sleepover at a Time. As readers would expect, as neighbors came to know each other better, they found ways to care about each other, and act in ways that provided needed support.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
Click here to purchase In the Neighborhood from amazon.com.

The Imperfectionists

Assembly. If you’re willing to give a debut novel a chance, consider Tom Rachman’s fine offering, The Imperfectionists. With great skill, Rachman presents portraits of characters, each with his or her own chapter, like individual sections of the failing newspaper that draws them together. Rachman paints these portraits with a consistent level of depth across ages and gender so that by the end of the book, I came away with great satisfaction in having spent time getting to know authentic characters displaying a full range of human behavior. Any reader who prefers taking a book in small doses can enjoy these chapters in a leisurely way.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
Click here to purchase The Imperfectionists from amazon.com.

The Spy

Pacing. The latest adventure novel to feature protagonist Isaac Bell is titled, The Spy, and most readers are likely to enjoy this well-paced book as perfect summer reading. Fans of Cussler will find the usual elements: highly skilled heroic protagonist; something featuring technological innovation; and plot momentum that keeps the pages turning swiftly. The novel is set in 1908 and the spies represent the superpowers of that time trying to build their forces before the first world war. Bell and the Van Dorn Detective Agency encounter a formidable opponent in the spy who is trying to set back America’s naval advancement. Bell again survives lots of close calls that supply the adrenalin rush in this exciting novel.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
Click here to purchase The Spy from amazon.com.

Monday, June 14, 2010


Folly. After two decades, Scott Turow has written a sequel to his 1987 debut novel, Presumed Innocent, titled Innocent. A familiar set of characters return, including Rusty Sabich, Tommy Molto, and Sandy Stern. At any age, a distraction into folly can lead any of us astray. Despite his maturity and prominence as chief appellate judge, Rusty Sabich can still submit to folly, and he does, leading to his trial for the murder of his wife, Barbara. Tommy Molto returns as reluctant prosecutor, prodded by his protégé, Jim Brand, who would like Molto’s job. While Sandy Stern is ill, he still performs courtroom virtuosity like no one else. Additional characters include Rusty’s son, Nat, and Anna Vostic, Rusty’s former law clerk. Turow’s writing is outstanding, his plot turns clever, and his fictional insights about marriage and late middle age may resonate with any readers of that age.

Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended)
Click here to purchase Innocent from amazon.com.


Platoon. One outcome from embedding journalists with troops in Iraq and Afghanistan is that the stories published can provide those of us thousands of miles away with some insight into what the situation is like on the ground. Sebastian Junger was embedded for five months with the U.S. Army’s 2nd Battalion in the Korengal valley, and the book he wrote from this experience is titled, War. Packed with vivid description of the setting, the people and the action, this book soars when Junger explores the many ways in which the members of a platoon subordinate their self interest for the good of the unit. From a society that rewards and encourages the pursuit of self-interest, these soldiers epitomize the greatness that comes from self sacrifice. I finished this book with a renewed appreciation for the actions of individuals engaged in the hell that is war.

Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended)
Click here to purchase War from amazon.com.

Deliver Us From Evil

Loss. I’m at a loss to understand why David Baldacci sells so many books. His latest, Deliver Us From Evil, reprises protagonist Shaw from an earlier novel, and introduces a new character, Reggie Campion. Katie James also appears in this novel. Reggie works as a killer for a vigilante organization that selects as targets criminals who have escaped justice, characters they call monsters. Think of the work as a battle of evil against evil. Shaw meets Reggie as his clandestine organization and Reggie’s have targeted the same monster. Set mostly in Provence, England and Labrador, the novel provides a fast-paced plot delivered with bite-sized chapters packed with poorly written dialogue. The descriptions of torture are too vivid and add nothing to but more unnecessary evil to the novel. Deliver us from Baldacci. Readers who like to stick to familiar authors will find action here, along with poor writing. Discriminating readers will find plenty of better choices from Daniel Silva or Alan Furst.

Rating: Two-star (Mildly Recommended)
Click here to purchase Deliver Us From Evil from amazon.com.

I'll Mature When I'm Dead: Dave Barry's Amazing Tales of Adulthood

Longer. I miss Dave Barry’s humor columns, so when a collection of 18 new and longer pieces was published as I'll Mature When I'm Dead: Dave Barry's Amazing Tales of Adulthood, I scooped up a copy. All but one of the pieces was new, and are packed with Barry’s trademark quirky humor. After the first half dozen or so, I found myself still laughing, but concluding that longer isn’t necessarily better. Barry honed his craft on shorter work, and having more space doesn’t necessarily lead to better writing. Most readers will laugh and enjoy each of these pieces. For my taste, shorter was better.

Rating: Two-star (Mildly Recommended)
Click here to purchase I’ll Mature When I’m Dead from amazon.com.

The Nearest Exit

Children. Last year, I enjoyed Olen Steinhauer’s novel, The Tourist, introducing protagonist Milo Weaver, so when the second, The Nearest Exit, was published, I had high expectations. I’m pleased to say those expectations were met. Steinhauer presents a deeply developed character with a strong moral compass, facing impossible choices. Steinhauer weaves webs within webs of deception, and explores how the love of children can lead to all kinds of behavior, including revenge. Any fan of spy novels or thrillers will appreciate the plot here, and any fiction fan will enjoy the fine writing and character development.

Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended)
Click here to purchase The Nearest Exit from amazon.com.

Spies of the Balkans

Choices. Alan Furst’s latest spy novel is titled, Spies of the Balkans. Set in Salonika, Greece in 1940, protagonist Constantine Zannis faces personal and professional choices as rumors of a Nazi invasion grow. Furst presents and develops Zannis as an ordinary and likeable character who is presented with choices during crisis. As a reader, I was compelled to reflect on whether or not I would have made the same heroic choices that Zannis does in this book. I concluded that his personal courage far exceeded my own, but remained believable. When asked to assist in the safe transport of Jews from central Europe through Greece to Turkey, Zannis readily responded with skill. Beyond fine character development, what Furst does well in this book as in his earlier work is to describe the places and period with such care that readers feel immersed in the situations presented. Any reader who loves this period and genre will find much to appreciate from these pages.

Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended)
Click here to purchase Spies of the Balkans from amazon.com.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War

Shadows. Over Memorial Day weekend, I had the honor and pleasure of reading Karl Marlantes debut novel, Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War. Weighing in at almost two pounds and just under 600 pages, this is a finely written novel that seemed to cover with great respect and care so many key components of that war: brave soldiers performing heroically in bad situations; the pointlessness and futility of why we were there and what we were doing; the foibles of leadership and the relentless politics. Protagonist Lieutenant Waino Mellas becomes a memorable and complex character on these pages, and by the time I turned the last page, I wanted the story to keep going. The memories of the Marines of Bravo Company, especially those killed in battle, remained with me like shadows after I finished the book. Any veteran and anyone who wants a glimpse of what Vietnam was like will likely find this book well worth reading.

Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended)
Click here to purchase Matterhorn from amazon.com.


Spunky. I decided to read Mark Haddon’s new novel, Boom!, because I thought his debut novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night was the best debut novel of 2003. The new novel is a rewrite of an earlier work of Haddon that was a bit of a publishing flop. As a result of Haddon’s rewrite, Boom is a fun book that will appeal especially to pre-teens. I laughed, and expect that kids who read this will enjoy it. Consider it for a vacation book to read aloud in the car.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
Click here to purchase Boom from amazon.com.

What the Dog Saw

Addictive. Malcolm Gladwell has assembled a collection of his articles from The New Yorker into a new book titled, What the Dog Saw. Although I had read most of these articles when they were first published, they still felt fresh as I re-read them. Gladwell’s writing style is always interesting and compelling, and his approach is often creative and unusual. The result is an enjoyable reading experience, especially for those readers who prefer short doses of reading on a variety of topics.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
Click here to purchase What the Dog Saw from amazon.com.

The Pregnant Widow

Stratagems. Maybe Martin Amis will finally win the Booker prize. His new novel, The Pregnant Widow, set mostly in the summer of 1970, provides the sweep, language, imagery and character development of the quintessential English novel. Protagonist Keith Nearing has joined his girlfriend Lily in Italy for the summer, in the castle of her friend Scheherazade’s uncle Jorquil, the romantic target of another houseguest, Gloria Beautyman. A broader cast of engaging characters come and go, as the sexual revolution satisfies and teases Keith. He gets some of what he wants, more than he imagines, and then nothing at all. Throughout the summer, Keith is reading the English canon of great novels, as he plots stratagems to pursue his carnal interests. Through chapters set in the present and in-between, readers come to understand just how pivotal that summer was for Keith and others. Amis writes with great skill and fans of finely written literary novels are likely to appreciate the talent he displays here.

Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended)
Click here to purchase The Pregnant Widow from amazon.com.

13 Bankers: The Wall Street Takeover and the Next Financial Meltdown

Power. Economists Simon Johnson and James Kwak present a little more than two hundred pages of clear and straightforward writing in their new book, 13 Bankers: The Wall Street Takeover and the Next Financial Meltdown. In a calm and reasoned way, the authors present an overview, context and historical perspective about many of the factors that led to the recent financial crisis, and how despite rhetoric about reform, we seem to be back to business as usual. Consistent with the principles of Thomas Jefferson, Johnson and Kwak express concern about the problems of concentrated power. They show clearly that a handful of privileged banks remain too big to fail, and continue to take risks that could lead to another crisis. Here’s the point (p. 180): “The large banks used their political power to protect their money machines from government interference, and when those machines exploded they used their size and importance to force the government to bail them out.” Johnson and Kwak propose capping the size of banks. At times, this book reads like a recap of the news headlines of recent years, but that adds to its readability, which is not a bad thing for a book written by economists. Any reader interested in a recap of what brought us to today’s concentrated risks, how past leaders broke up powerful concentrated entities, and how the current power of big banks puts us in jeopardy, will find a lot to ponder from these pages.

Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended)
Click here to purchase 13 Bankers from amazon.com.