Saturday, November 27, 2010

Decision Points

Painless. The five hundred pages of George W. Bush’s autobiography, Decision Points, met my expectations, and I expect will be well-received both by readers who think favorably and unfavorably of the person and his presidency. Readers looking for insight and understanding aren’t likely to find either; as Bush himself says, historians will need many decades to be able to place his time in office in perspective. Supporters will read with pleasure about Bush’s values and principles, and how he applied them to every critical issue. Readers with unfavorable opinions about Bush will read about the ways in which he forged ahead without much curiosity about important issues, and how he could be manipulated by those who played to his personality. As I expected, he put the best possible spin on the topics he covers, and while I wanted to find an answer to the question, “What was he thinking?,” that insight was absent from this book. Any reader interested in politics will find that this book is required and painless reading.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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I Remember Nothing: and Other Reflections

Musings. I read Nora Ephron’s new essay collection, I Remember Nothing, in a single sitting. In the title essay, she muses about not being able to remember more and more things as she ages, and that which she remembers seems incidental rather than important. Her wit is sharp, her insights cogent, and these musings were light and humorous. Here’s a sample of her taking a serious point and leading the reader to a smile: “Alcoholic parents are so confusing. They’re your parents, so you love them; but they’re drunks, so you hate them. But you love them. But you hate them.” (p. 38). Readers who like short, well-written essays are likely to enjoy this book, especially those who are old enough to join AARP.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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The Reversal

Surprises. Master crime novelist Michael Connelly’s new novel is titled The Reversal, and reprises criminal defense attorney Mickey Haller and detective Harry Bosch, his half-brother. These quirky and competent characters could bear the full burden of the novel, but Connelly supports them with a well-constructed plot that kept me engaged from beginning to end, with enough surprises to add to the overall entertainment. Haller agrees to an unusual proposal from the D.A. that he sign up as a special prosecutor for the retrial of an old case. Haller reluctantly agrees, and enlists his ex-wife as co-counsel and Bosch as investigator. All the family and relationship issues provide added enjoyment for Connelly fans, and the teenagers provide enough background to draw out more balanced dimensions from the hardworking main characters. Readers who like crime fiction are likely to find reading pleasure from this novel.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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Thursday, November 18, 2010

Fall of Giants

Sweeping. I approached Ken Follett’s Century Trilogy with a decision to make: the first novel, Fall of Giants, came in at almost a thousand pages, and I knew that if I became hooked, this would be many hours of reading, not just for this novel but expecting that I would read the next two as well. I’ve read a lot of Follett’s work, and feel that his compact Eye of the Needle is the best of all, although the historical novels Pillars of the Earth and World Without End were entertaining and engaging. I took the plunge. Set in the 20th century, the new novel uses the characters in five families to present the historical events, including the Russian Revolution, World War I, prohibition, and the fight for women’s rights. Follett’s history seems accurate, and the vivid characters he presents draw readers into their personal stories. A minor annoyance I experienced was from plot: the improbable circumstances that brought characters together. I was reminded of the John Jakes historical novels where at every turn a character bumped into a historical figure or another main character. Readers who enjoy historical fiction will find many enjoyable pages to read in this first installment, and may look forward to learning what happens next to these characters.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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Our Kind of Traitor

Insiders. Our Kind of Traitor is the most interesting and enjoyable novel from David Cornwell as John Le Carre that I’ve read in years. Having abandoned both anti-Americanism and cerebral puzzles, Le Carre returns to the core of the spy genre: interesting characters and the presence of larger games afoot than is first evident. The large cast of characters in this novel is both well-developed and fleshed out through back stories that provide a context for current behavior. The powerful insiders who control the action remain the less visible operators, but the ones who count the most. At the center of this story is money laundering, and an honorable criminal who wants to escape his current life and resettle his family under the protection of the British government. While the world he is trying to leave has its complicated relationships, the people and schemes that entangle those trying to help him are the most intricate of all. Readers who like reading fine prose within a well-constructed complicated plot will enjoy this book.

Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended)
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The Confession

Abolition. The stimulating legal issue of interest in John Grisham’s novel, The Confession, is the death penalty. Set in Texas, the plot reveals all the potential weak links in the criminal justice system, and the irreversible consequences when the system kills an innocent person. In the case at the center of the novel, Grisham uses a heavy hand rather than nuance to present the flaws of the system: a coerced confession; a prosecutor and judge with conflicts of interest; disengaged appeals justices; a governor whose interest is politics, not justice. Grisham’s characters are more caricature than recognizable people. Honest professionals in the criminal justice system will be offended by Grisham’s extreme case. Any reader will come away from this novel with a single conclusion: the death penalty makes no sense and should be abolished. Readers who like novels with a clear point of view will like this book, as will those who prefer plot over character.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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Worth Dying For

Recovery. Lee Child’s fifteenth novel to feature the heroic and uber-competent Jack Reacher is titled Worth Dying For, and answers the cliff hanger from the previous novel to those fans of the series. Readers need not have read the earlier novels to appreciate this story in which Reacher stumbles into a rural Nebraska town controlled by a criminal family who intimidate everyone in the area. Child draws readers into the story quickly, and maintains plot momentum throughout 400 pages of thrilling entertainment. It’s no spoiler to reveal that by the end of the novel, Reacher has beaten the bad guys and restored the citizens of the town to normal ways of living. Readers who like strong and competent protagonists will enjoy this novel, as will those who like plot resolution that ties together all the loose ends.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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Irish Tweed

Bullying. There’s a feel-good quality to every novel written by Chicago priest Father Andrew Greeley. In Irish Tweed, Greeley presents a modern story of bullies going after the good guys, alternated with a historical tale of a woman overcoming opponents. The strong characters are drawn in ways that highlight the best and worst of human nature, and Greeley always shows how it is the best of our humanity that rises to the occasion and overcomes both evil and those who try to bully or smother goodness. Readers who like the satisfaction of reading a novel in which goodness triumphs over evil will find pleasure on these pages.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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101 Places Not to See Before You Die

Stretched. There are a dozen or so funny pages in Catherine Price’s book, 101 Places Not to See Before You Die. Having taken the contrarian approach to the bucket list genre, Price must have easily come up with thirty or forty choices for her list, and was able to write witty prose that provided the bulk of the entertainment in this book. It seemed to me that to come up with her target of 101 places, she had to stretch quite a bit, and the humor often disappeared, and the shtick became tiresome. Readers who like a quick laugh will find some chuckles here, but getting to them requires a journey to some places that are better left unvisited. Readers with the patience to move briskly past the boring parts will be rewarded with some good laughs.

Rating: Two-star (Mildly Recommended)
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Corduroy Mansions

Characters. London is the setting for a new character-driven novel by prolific author Alexander McCall Smith, titled Corduroy Mansions. Fans of Smith’s earlier novels set in Scotland and Botswana will enjoy a change in locale and the familiarity of a large cast of interesting characters, both the loveable and the despicable. The relationships in the new novel are often in stress: father and son; mother and son; lovers; and the cover art clues the readers that a dog will also find a way into some relationships. The entertainment from Smith’s novels comes from the fun readers have in observing ordinary lives brought to life in the capable hands of a writer who can catch our attention and help us care about what happens to others. Any reader who likes those novels that tell clear stories about recognizable characters will appreciate this and other Smith novels.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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Monday, November 15, 2010

Pinheads and Patriots: Where You Stand in the Age of Obama

Boring. I’ve wondered what makes Bill O’Reilly appealing and why he has become popular. After reading his book, Pinheads and Patriots, I’m beginning to understand. He judges and divides every person and issue in ways that can entertain and come across so definitively that any middle ground or gray area evaporates. One is either a pinhead or a patriot. That seems to play well to our divided society, especially along political lines. While behaving as a bombastic bully, he pretends to reflect the perspective of real Americans in a fair and balanced way. For those who agree with him, O’Reilly is an articulate spokesperson for their opinions. For those who disagree with him, he can raise one’s blood pressure with his rhetoric. Those fans of his show may not find much new on these pages; curious readers will find some insight into the author and his views, and those who disagree with him will probably not pick up this book. Overall, I found the book boring; without hearing the author’s voice, the words fall a bit flat on the page, reminding me that above all, O’Reilly is a showman who demands to be heard. When one can read his words slowly, there’s not much to think about, and his authority comes not from insight or perspective, but from having a soapbox in prime time.

Rating: Two-star (Mildly Recommended)
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Lost Empire

Puzzles. The Fargo Adventure sub-brand of the Clive Cussler conglomerate has released the second novel in the series, Lost Empire. Protagonists Sam and Remi Fargo continue their treasure hunting off the coast of Tanzania, and stumble into an adventure that pits them in the crosshairs of the nationalist president of Mexico who wants to keep a big secret. Once the thriller action starts when the bad guys pursue Sam and Remi the pace remains constant to the end. The Cussler writers are in no hurry to reveal more than is necessary in any one Fargo novel, so I came away from this novel with as many questions about the protagonists as I had the first time. Nonetheless, this is reliable entertainment for those readers who like alternative versions of history and a high dose of excitement.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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The Dark Vineyard

Terroir. Martin Walker’s mystery novel, The Dark Vineyard, reprises municipal police officer Bruno Courrèges and the small town of Saint-Denis in the Dordogne region of southwest France. In this engaging and entertaining novel, Walker brings the area and characters to life in rich and vivid ways that are best enjoyed when accompanied by a glass or two of the local wine. There’s plenty of modernity in the quaint town: a research station is doing something with genetically modified crops, and a California winery has a proposal to bring jobs to the area. Bruno has to navigate local politics while he investigates arson and murder. Readers who like novels in which place and character dominate will find much to enjoy in this novel.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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Curiosity. It was curiosity that led me to Tom McCarthy’s novel, C. From the first page through the last, I remained curious and questioning: just what is he doing here and what is this all about? In many respects, this is the most unusual novel I’ve read in a long time. McCarthy riffs on all kinds of “C’s” from the protagonist’s name (Carrefax) to carbon, caul, chloroform, cocaine, communication, cysteine, connection and dozens more. Carrefax behaves with enough eccentricity to feed one’s curiosity and other characters arrive and depart without making much of an impression. Readers with the patience to slog through digressions and disconnections might find pleasure on these pages. For me, it was curiosity that maintained my page turning, and I was as bewildered at the end as I was at the beginning and in the middle. Sample a few dozen pages before deciding whether or not this a novel for you.

Rating: Two-star (Mildly Recommended)
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Bryant & May Off the Rails

Haunting. I plunged into the eighth Peculiar Crimes Unit novel by Christopher Fowler without having read any of the earlier books in the series. I found Bryant & May Off the Rails to stand well on its own, and Fowler’s writing is clever and funny throughout. Senior detectives Arthur Bryant and John May find their special unit threatened with dissolution following the death of a colleague when a murderer in custody escaped. The setting for the latest novel is the London Underground, especially King’s Cross Station, and there’s a haunting aspect to this world below ground that provides the perfect atmosphere for a crime novel. The stakes are high for Bryant & May, and joining them on this adventure was great reading entertainment. Any reader who enjoys clever mystery writing will likely appreciate this novel and this series.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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