Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Lyndon B. Johnson

Insecurity. I’ve liked each of the books I’ve read in the American Presidents Series, and the latest for me, Lyndon B. Johnson, may be the shortest book about the 36th president I’ve read. Despite the brevity, Charles Peters captured Johnson quite well, in my opinion, especially the insecurity he felt throughout his life. Peters presents the highs and lows of Johnson’s life and presidency, and through snippets covers the man fully, warts and all. The way in which Johnson berated his subordinates has always intrigued me, and Peters covers that with clarity and efficiency. Any reader who enjoys history and efficient writing will appreciate this book.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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The Rembrandt Affair

Secrets. Israeli spy Gabriel Allon returns older and better than ever in Daniel Silva’s latest novel, The Rembrandt Affair. Fans of this series will find familiar key characters returning in fully developed form. The plot moves Allon around Europe and to South America, as he takes on a challenge that pierces his heart. The adversaries are formidable, and plot twists kept me engaged throughout the novel. Life in retirement for Allon contains few dull moments. Readers who like action thrillers will be entertained by this novel.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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The Red Queen

Winning. Philippa Gregory’s latest work of historical fiction is titled, The Red Queen, and presents England’s War of the Roses from the perspective of Margaret Beaufort, the mother of Henry Tudor, who went on to be King Henry VII. Everything in this novel is from Margaret’s perspective, and her intense focus on positioning her only son to reign pays off in the end, as she collaborates and schemes to advance him whenever she can. There’s treachery and battles and intrigue on these pages, but in the end, this is a story of a mother’s devotion to her son. I don’t know whether Gregory’s history matches that of scholars of this period, but I found the novel quick to read and generally entertaining.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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The Third Rail

Spree. Michael Harvey’s third novel to feature Chicago private eye Michael Kelly is titled, The Third Rail. This time out, Kelly finds himself in the center of a killing spree and gets played by the mayor, the feds, the police, and most especially, the killer. Squeamish readers will find the violence over the top, and mystery lovers will have the good and bad guys sorted out without much strain to the little gray cells. Readers who like escape thriller novels will be entertained by this novel. This is a decent selection for an airplane ride or on vacation, since it doesn’t require much effort to read. Readers looking for deeper character development won’t find it here.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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Super Sad True Love Story

Verbal. Gary Shteyngart’s new novel, Super Sad True Love Story, presents a near-future world that could be one likely outcome from current trends. Let’s hope not, and consider this as fine satire. Using a structure of alternating chapters from two main characters, Shteyngart builds Lenny’s contributions as old-fashioned diary entries, and his girlfriend Eunice’s entries as e-mail or online records. Life, love and work are both the same and different in the world Shteyngart creates, and as the title conveys, on one level this is a traditional love story. I found the language creative and entertaining, and those readers who enjoy talented writing will find much to appreciate in this book.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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Monday, August 16, 2010

Sh*t My Dad Says

Character. What started as a Twitter phenomenon turned into a book as Justin Halpern shares the range of what comes out of the mouth of his father. In Sh*t My Dad Says, Halpern captures the humor and wisdom of a most interesting character. Blunt and outspoken, often vulgar, this is a father outside the Robert Young mold. Readers who are open to dysfunctional humor are likely to enjoy this quick read.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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This Time Together: Laughter and Reflection

Kindness. Carol Burnett’s second memoir, This Time Together, is packed with stories that reflect the humor and kindness of the author. Reading each chapter is like listening to a dinner guest relate a story to a group gathered around the table. I can’t recall her saying anything nasty about any person, and that’s certainly rare among celebrity memoirs. Carol relates the joys and sorrows in her life with directness and in ways that lead the reader to laughter or tears.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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Dead Line

Individuals. Retired MI5 director Stella Rimington presents another spy novel featuring MI 5 operative Liz Carlyle. In Dead Line, Liz tries to separate truth from fiction in rumored plots to disrupt a Middle East peace conference in Gleneagles, Scotland. Liz proceeds methodically, and readers are treated to the leaps of her intuition, and her ability to unravel all the confusing threads. This series continues to provide entertaining and reliable plots for fans of espionage fiction.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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61 Hours

Obvious. Readers looking for a light and quick reading experience will find reliable entertainment from Lee Child’s 14th Jack Reacher novel titled, 61 Hours. Reacher lands in a small South Dakota town following a bus accident, and finds himself immersed in the activities of a Mexican drug cartel at an abandoned military facility near town. A reward for long-time readers of this series comes in the form of greater understanding of Reacher’s past, and how that formed the person he is today. The depth of this character also expands in this installment when Reacher shows poor judgment, which had seemed to be a rare event in the earlier novels. While the plot moved along briskly, I found the mystery quite obvious, but that didn’t necessarily distract from my reading pleasure.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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Island Beneath the Sea

Slavery. Isabel Allende’s storytelling in her latest novel, Island Beneath the Sea, kept me engaged from beginning to end. Set in Haiti and New Orleans, this is a story of slavery and enduring relationships. Allende takes readers into the lives of slaves and masters and delivers to readers the joys and tragedies of life in vivid detail. Any fan of historical fiction, these places, or this time period, will find this novel to be a rewarding reading experience.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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Union Atlantic

Systemic. Adam Haslett’s debut novel, Union Atlantic, provokes readers to think about the established values that support our society and frame the behaviors that are rewarded or punished. Each of the key characters in this novel behaves in ways that reflect a worldview formed by life’s experience. Doug Fanning left the impoverished home of his alcoholic mother to join the military, served in the Gulf, and returned home to a banking meritocracy that rewarded his focus on producing profits by any means. His boss was willing to look the other way as long as the bank, Union Atlantic, was making money. Fanning lives a lonely workaholic life and builds a McMansion in Finton, Massachusetts, next door to Charlotte Graves, a retired history teacher. Her values are set in opposition to Doug’s: she values the land and clear-heading thinking. Her brother, Henry, chairs the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, believes in strong government and keeping the system afloat. Nate is a teen grieving the death of his father, and he enters the lives of both Charlotte and Doug raging with a desire to love and be loved while pleasing others. Solitude and loss pervade these pages, while life goes on, packed with major life-changing events. This is a fine debut novel that most readers will enjoy.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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Deceit. Unless Felix Francis decides to continue, Crossfire will be the 44th and last Dick Francis novel, and the fourth on which Felix collaborated with his father, who has since died. Like almost all the earlier novels, this one features a strong and sympathetic protagonist, a well-paced plot, and a mystery that untangles at just the right time. Tom Forsyth returns from service in Afghanistan following the loss of a foot in an IED explosion. He ends up at home and finds his mother distant, cold and distracted. Tom stumbles onto an extortion and blackmailing plot rooted in fraud and deceit. For the waning days of Summer, this will be perfect reading entertainment.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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The Same River Twice

Endings. Ted Mooney’s latest novel, The Same River Twice, invites readers into an artistic and philosophical journey, set in Paris. Mooney uses the moviemaking of protagonist Max Colby as a backdrop to an intellectual exploration of alternative endings to life and relationships. Max’s wife, Odile, a clothing designer, provides the plot momentum through her sideline work as a courier who smuggles Soviet-era flags out of Russia. Think of this book as the written form of a quirky foreign film that twists and turns leaving one wondering what that was all about. Patient and intelligent readers will be rewarded by Mooney’s good writing, and for feeling the brain’s engagement while reading.

Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended)
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Saturday, August 7, 2010

Faithful Place

Secrets. Explosive emotions felt by multiple characters are never far from the surface in Tana French’s latest novel, Faithful Place. The past becomes another character, as alive and real and present as any individual. Protagonist and undercover police officer Frank Mackey finds himself back in his childhood home and gripped by the feelings that led him to flee that place two decades earlier. Secrets long held are revealed, and the pace of the story and its emotional tension will keep most readers engaged from beginning to end.

Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended)
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Still Missing

Dramatic. Chevy Stevens’ debut novel, Still Missing, is structured in chapters that reflect sessions that the protagonist, Annie O’Sullivan, has with her psychiatrist. At age 32, Annie was a realtor, and is abducted from an open house and taken to a remote cabin on Vancouver Island. The trauma she experienced becomes the dramatic action of the novel, and the pace remained fast from beginning to end. The deeper story of family and mothering verged on the melodramatic, but Stevens steered back from that edge every time she came close. Readers who like exciting stories and are willing to give new writers a look, will find this novel both interesting and entertaining.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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Mr. Peanut

Marriage. Adam Ross’ debut novel, Mr. Peanut, will not appeal to those readers who prefer fiction to fit into specific genre, and who like a well-told tale presented in a straightforward manner. This is also not a book that a reader can savor casually paying limited attention. Ross presents an oddly constructed and convoluted novel that requires great patience and attention. The payoff for readers willing to extend that patience comes in the form of creative, imaginative and well-written prose. Ross presents marriage in ways that I don’t think I’ve ever read or experienced. I finished the book feeling that I experienced something unique, and recommend this novel to those readers looking for something far off the beaten path.

Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended)
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The Lonely Polygamist

Family. Readers who like thick novels that tell stories that dig into the thicket of human behavior will enjoy Brady Udall’s 600 hundred page book, The Lonely Polygamist. Protagonist Golden Richards has four wives, twenty eight living children and a job building a brothel that keeps him away from home most weeks, leaving him as the title indicates, lonely. On page 193, Udall sums up Golden’s predicament: “He was a man with a crush on a prostitute, a condom in his wallet and gum in his public hair-what could it all mean?” Despite his lifestyle, or because of it, Golden is a likeable, bumbling everyman. His life and work, his concerns and foibles, could be those of any of us. After six hundred pages, I both laughed and sighed.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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The Rise and Fall of Bear Stearns

Blunt. Ace Greenberg’s memoir, The Rise and Fall of Bear Stearns, fits into the pattern of his earlier book, Memos from the Chairman: blunt, pithy, and sometimes humorous. In this short book (under 200 pages), Greenberg recounts his career without much detail or elaboration. This matter-of-fact style communicates his point of view with great clarity, but leaves readers with more questions than answers. For about half the book, Greenberg refutes the version of events former Bear CEO Jimmy Cayne revealed in House of Cards. The bluntness abounds in those parts. When it came to refuting Cayne’s recollection of his early compensation at the company, Greenberg’s summary was “I think not.” While Greenberg positions himself as above reproach and always interested in merit, employees, shareholders and the survival of the firm, his failure to uncover the character and shortcomings of key executives comes across as nothing short of Shakespearean tragedy.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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