Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Washington: A Life

Fresh. I opened Ron Chernow’s 900 page biography, Washington: A Life, with the expectation that I would become bored quickly and put it aside. After all, is there anything new or fresh to add to the extensive books that have been written about the first President over the past two centuries? I was pleasantly surprised that I found myself absorbed in a story that, while familiar, came across as fresh and alive. Before I knew it I was hooked, and I was happy to read through to the end, learning many new tidbits about Washington along the way. Any reader who enjoys American history will find something to appreciate in this finely written biography.

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

Franklin and Eleanor: An Extraordinary Marriage

Bonds. Hazel Rowley’s new book, Franklin and Eleanor: An Extraordinary Marriage, explores the lives of these fascinating characters with a special focus on their marriage, with all its ups and downs. FDR’s infidelity could have ended their marriage, but Eleanor loved him enough to remain his wife, although her independence and her own relationships provided her with the affection her marriage didn’t. Rowley clearly has affection for her subjects, and presents them and their unusual marriage with insight. This was a political relationship that endured many setbacks, and it was a marriage that survived prolonged separations and conflicting relationships. Rowley presents it all in a way that provides all readers with good history and an absorbing personal story.

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

Just Kids

Artists. For those readers who are not artists, the memoir Just Kids by Patti Smith is like entering into an alien world. Smith writes with precision and clarity about her life in the 1960s and 1970s when she and Robert Mapplethorpe were friends and lovers and their art was not noticed. The starving artists scenario could have turned out quite differently, and is from the distance of their successes that we can appreciate the uncertainty of their lives when they were young. Smith’s voice in this memoir gently brings readers into her relationship with Robert and the people, places and milestones of their lives. It’s easy to understand why this book has been praised and has received major awards.

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

Colonel Roosevelt

Bully. The superb conclusion to Edmund Morris’ trilogy on the life of Theodore Roosevelt is titled Colonel Roosevelt. Those who have read the earlier installments have been waiting a decade for this book, and the wait has been worth it. Morris presents the final decade of Roosevelt’s life as a time packed with tragedies and setbacks, while Roosevelt’s indomitable spirit soars above all obstacles until his death. Despite the almost 800 pages of this book, I wanted to read even more about the 1912 election or the trip down the River of Doubt. Any reader who enjoys American history will find the character of Teddy Roosevelt as presented here to be as engaging and interesting a presentation as one can find.

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

The Inner Circle

Secrets. Brad Meltzer’s latest thriller, The Inner Circle, presents readers with an action-packed plot, an imaginative premise and weakly developed characters. For fans of action novels, this one places few demands on a reader’s mental acuity; one can sit back, turn pages swiftly and let the action unfold. The imaginative premise is that a secret group has existed for centuries providing support to the United States Presidency. Since few secrets in Washington seem to last minutes, the notion that a big one could survive centuries requires a reader to suspend a great deal of disbelief. The action carries a reader forward, and even after over 450 pages, there’s room for the story to continue, so a sequel may well be coming soon.

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

Saturday, January 15, 2011

An Object of Beauty

Amorality. Steve Martin’s new novel, An Object of Beauty, presents a cast of characters in the art world, most of whom will do or say whatever is necessary to get what they want. Martin does a fine job in presenting unappealing characters and immoral behavior in ways that keep readers interested and engaged. His own experience as an art collector provides him with a perspective on the art world that helped this novel present a fully formed world. Martin develops the characters well, immerses readers into the art world, and presents perspective and insight into human behavior. Readers who like character-driven fiction are most likely to enjoy this novel, whether one likes the individual characters or not.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
Click here to purchase An Object of Beauty from amazon.com.

The Last of the Imperious Rich: Lehman Brothers, 1844-2008

Incomplete. After I turned the last page of Peter Chapman’s The Last of the Imperious Rich: Lehman Brothers 1844-2008, I had the feeling that the author patched this together with a minimum of research and few interviews with insiders. Chapman’s previous book about the United Fruit Company, Bananas, provided him with much information about their banker, Lehman Brothers, and I had the sense that he recycled what he had that fit this book. Rather than a comprehensive and insightful history of Lehman Brothers, this book presents the personalities of the leaders through anecdotes, and the historical context is presented in a paragraph or two. At its best, the book brings those personalities to life. As a comprehensive and accurate history or as a commentary with insight on the demise of the company, this book falls far short.

Rating: Two-star (Mildly Recommended)
Click here to purchase The Last of the Imperious Rich from amazon.com.

A Voice from Old New York: A Memoir of My Youth

Words. After writing sixty or so novels, Louis Auchincloss presented a memoir titled, A Voice from Old New York, published after his death last year at age ninety two. Selecting his words with care and precision, Auchincloss reflects on the world in which he grew up, revealing a view on a world that most readers have not experienced. Any reader wanting a glimpse at a segment of society and a lifestyle long past will find a lot to enjoy from these pages. By the end of the memoir, Auchincloss concludes that society doesn’t matter. For most readers, a different conclusion could be drawn from Auchincloss’ decades of fine writing.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
Click here to purchase A Voice from Old New York from amazon.com.

The Girl in the Green Raincoat

Persistence. Laura Lippman wrote her novella, The Girl in the Green Raincoat, in serial form for The New York Times Magazine. That structure demands chapters that stand well on their own, and allows a reader to drop off and pick up with a time lapse in between. Protagonist and detective Tess Monaghan has been confined to bed rest toward the end of her pregnancy, and her attention is caught by a woman walking her dog. Tess never gives up in trying to get to the bottom of what happened when the dog appeared without the woman. The characters are developed effectively, and the plot keeps readers engaged and interested throughout. Readers who prefer short fiction and those who like to read in small doses will find pleasure from this book.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
Click here to purchase The Girl in the Green Raincoat from amazon.com.

The Emperor's Tomb

Didactic. Steve Berry continues to stretch his readers’ willingness to suspend disbelief with this year’s installment in his Cotton Malone series titled, The Emperor’s Tomb. Malone works as an antiquarian bookseller, but he suspends that work regularly when the government deploys him across the globe to risk his life and others in mostly implausible situations. Set mostly in China this time out, Berry breaks up the action often with lengthy explanations of centuries of Chinese politics and other results of his research. This didactic style becomes something of a palate cleanser between action courses. Fans of action thrillers will find ample action here, and those readers patient enough to tolerate mediocre writing and occasional boring exposition and explanation are those most likely to enjoy this novel.

Rating: Two-star (Mildly Recommended)
Click here to purchase The Emperor’s Tomb from amazon.com.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Compass Rose

Locale. More than twenty years after writing award-winning Spartina, John Casey has returned to the fictional place and people he created in that novel and presents another book titled, Compass Rose. The protagonist of Spartina, fisherman Dick Pierce, returns in a background role, while the foreground contains three women who love him: his wife, May, his mistress, Elsie, and his daughter with Elsie, Rose. Casey excels at creating a setting that readers can see, smell and touch. His characters are bound to the setting in deep ways, and the place and the people merge and meld as their lives become interconnected. The characters are people that most readers can see as fully formed complex individuals, making choices that any of us would consider complicated. Casey’s writing is superb, and any reader who enjoys literary fiction is likely to appreciate this fine work.

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

First Family: Abigail and John Adams

Triumph. I don’t think I learned anything new about John and Abigail Adams after reading Joseph Ellis’ book, First Family. I did feel something new: an appreciation of the triumph this couple achieved having overcome great obstacles. Neither could have done as much without the other, and their deep love endured long absences. Thanks to their voluminous correspondence, we can eavesdrop on their lives and gain insight into their lives and time. Ellis writes with a style that most readers will find enjoyable as he tells story after story in ways that keep readers engaged. No matter how well you know the story of this Adams family, consider spending time with them again in the capable hands of Joseph Ellis.

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

Atlantic: Great Sea Battles, Heroic Discoveries, Titanic Storms,and a Vast Ocean of a Million Stories

Homage. I never expected that I would have read all 500 pages of Simon Winchester’s Atlantic. After all, how interesting could a biography of the Atlantic Ocean be? Thanks to Winchester’s skill, very interesting. He swings backwards and forwards in time, flitting from one subject to another in ways that kept enlivening my interest. He makes this both a personal story by conveying what his experience of the Atlantic has been, and a history and science exploration that remained engaging throughout. Any general reader with an interest in history or science will find much to enjoy in this book. Winchester’s homage to this ocean makes for eclectic reading at its best.

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

Extraordinary, Ordinary People

Sweet. Condoleezza Rice’s memoir, Extraordinary, Ordinary People is a loving recollection of her parents and their family life. Whatever you think of Rice and her politics, you’re likely to enjoy reading about this family. Birmingham Alabama in the 1960s was a hotbed of racism and the Rice family’s experience of that time and place was one of the most finely written parts of the book. Music, football and religion are covered with grace and ease, bringing to life people and places. The struggles with illness and loss in the Rice family will resonate for any reader. This is a sweet story about people who loved and cared for each other. Any reader looking for a happy memoir to read will find much to enjoy from this book.

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

Crescent Dawn

Turkey. The latest Dirk Pitt novel from Clive and Dirk Cussler is titled Crescent Dawn, and much of the action takes place in and around Turkey. The structure of this action thriller follows the authors’ proven formula: multiple plot lines; various time periods; and characters that are either heroes or villains. The usual 500+ pages provide ample opportunity for rapid page turning as the action moves quickly. The whole Pitt family appears on these pages, and their exploits are both outlandish and highly competent. The villains are almost comic, and before a reader knows it, the action has wrapped up and the story ends. Readers looking for quality writing are likely to be disappointed, while those readers who like heroes to be swashbucklers, and villains to be malicious can enjoy every page of this novel.

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