Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Mind's Eye

Cases. Readers who enjoy a blend of personal stories and science will be those who most appreciate Oliver Sachs’ latest book, The Mind’s Eye. This book blends the author’s personal story with some medical cases, all of which present a fascinating story about how the mind adapts to changes in vision. Sachs suffers from a condition called “face blindness” in which he cannot visually identify individuals, even those he has met often. Other cases include a professional musician who can no longer see musical scores, but plays now from memory, and a writer who can no longer read, but continues to be able to write. While the book contains footnotes and a bibliography, the reading audience is likely to be general readers, not professionals.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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We All Fall Down

Insiders. Michael Harvey’s latest thriller to feature Chicago private detective Michael Kelly is titled, We All Fall Down. Kelly is brought inside a tightly held group that is investigating the release of a pathogen that could create havoc in the city and the death of many people. It is Kelly who figures out all the puzzle pieces, despite him being the most unlikely participant in a case that is way outside his role and expertise. For readers able to move beyond the implausibility of his involvement, the plot moves rapidly, and the action moves fast enough to keep any reader engaged. There are insiders with their own plots and plans among the politicians, scientists and criminals. Even those closest to Kelly have a lot at stake in the outcome. Readers who like action thrillers will find a lot to enjoy here as Harvey explores a new terror threat from black biology.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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Friday, July 22, 2011

Ten Thousand Saints

Trouble. Coming of age in the late 1980s had much in common and much different from other times. Eleanor Henderson uses the four hundred pages of her novel, Ten Thousand Saints, to present drugs, music, and intense experiences and relationships. The characters are wounded, damaged, neglected, abused and loved. There’s tragedy and trouble amid caring while adolescent and adult behavior don’t necessarily match up with the ages of the characters. Set in Vermont and New York City, there’s an energy to this novel that will keep most readers engaged. By the end, most readers will be glad to close the book and appreciate one’s own life and experiences.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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Against All Enemies

Legion. The advantage of reading Tom Clancy’s new novel, Against All Enemies, in ebook form was that it was lighter that way than in hardcover, and the pages turned faster when I was not distracted by how far it was to the end. Back in the Red October days, the Soviet enemy was clear and present. Today, threats are everywhere, and Clancy not only presents them individually, but he conjures up the notion of collaboration between Gulf region terrorists and Mexican drug cartels. In usual Clancy form, there is minute description of weaponry, and tedious plot development. Readers who perceive fiction value in pages per dollar spent will be able to compute based on almost eight hundred pages in this messy novel. There might be a good three hundred page novel in there somewhere.

Rating: One-star (Read only if your interest is strong)
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The Pale King

Boredom. I can almost hear David Foster Wallace’s laughter from the afterlife when he learns that his unfinished novel, The Pale King, turned out to be his most accessible and popular work when it was edited and published posthumously. This almost six-hundred-page novel makes boredom funny. Set at an IRS office in Peoria, Illinois, the characters made me laugh out loud and their boring work and lives becomes fodder for Wallace’s careful choice of words and presentation of life in all its richness. Readers who can tolerate odd structure will be rewarded with a rich reading experience and lots of laughter.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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Untold Story

Imaginative. Many novels rely on the imagination of readers to take a fictional character and try to picture that person in real life. Monica Ali takes a different course in her new novel, Untold Story. She takes a very well-known character, the late Princess Diana, and imagines her life had she not died, but instead staged a death, had plastic surgery and lived in obscurity. Some readers will find Ali’s character to be out of synch with a reader’s image, or find her premise preposterous. Such readers should take a pass on reading this novel. Those readers who like a well written novel, and are willing to suspend disbelief can enjoy Ali’s take on a character whose life could have gone another way. I found this novel to be fun to read, and Ali’s writing talent reveals itself on every page.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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Penance. I opened J. Courtney Sullivan’s new novel, Maine, with low expectations, since I found the characters in her debut novel, Commencement, to be poorly developed and unsympathetic. I was pleasantly surprised to find the generations of characters presented to have depth and the overall story telling was done well and kept me interested for all four hundred pages. Protagonist Alice Kelleher set the course of her life in a specific direction following a life changing event. All her life has been lived in some form of penance for the guilt she felt. The sense of place that Sullivan creates for the setting in Maine will resonate for those readers who have ever lived in a special place. The family dynamics are so dysfunctional that this novel could be used in an introductory psychology course. Readers who like imperfect characters with messy lives and odd relationships are those most likely to enjoy this novel.

Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended)
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Ladies and Gentlemen

Lesser. After I finished reading the seven short stories from Adam Ross titled after one, Ladies and Gentlemen, I found myself wishing he had spent his time on a novel instead. Ross’ debut novel, Mr. Peanut, took the time and space to explore and develop characters in ways that kept me interested and engaged. The quality in this story collection was mixed. I found myself satisfied with two or three, and found the majority less absorbing. I had the feeling that Ross knocked off some of these stories as a break from writing something longer, and he didn’t devote the same time and energy to these as he did to his novel. For readers who like short stories, these are worth a sampling.

Rating: Two-star (Mildly Recommended)
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Monument to Murder

Coverup. The latest, and probably last, Capital Crimes series novel written by the late Margaret Truman is titled, Monument to Murder. While series protagonists Mac and Annabelle appear in this novel, they don’t show up until after one hundred pages of exposition are presented. A private detective has been hired to investigate a decades old murder, and he stumbles his way into a coverup that reaches to the highest levels of government. This novel provides quick, light reading, and the kind of mystery in which all the pieces unfold without requiring a lot of attention. Those readers who enjoy entertaining mysteries with interesting plots and reliable characters are those most likely to appreciate this book.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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Mysteries. I’ve had William Peter Blatty’s novel, Dimiter, sitting around for more than a year, and I had put off reading it because I read that the plot was convoluted, and wanted to save it for a time when I could concentrate. A recent multi-day power outage removed all distractions, so I was able to give this novel my undivided attention over two days. The plot is complicated, more than convoluted, and the reward for engaged readers is an exploration into the world of mysteries, past and present, and cogent reflection on the mysteries of goodness and sacrifice. This is an unusual novel, finely written, and will be appreciated most by those readers with the patience and diligence to pay close attention.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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Saturday, July 9, 2011


Rescue. The tension in Karin Slaughter’s new crime thriller, Fallen, starts quickly and remains taut to the very end. Retired police officer Evelyn Mitchell has been kidnapped, and her GBI investigator daughter, Faith, along with a wide cast of characters are out to rescue her. Faith’s GBI partner, Will Trent, also needs rescue, and that subplot remains as tense as the prime action. This was the first Slaughter novel I’ve opened, and I found it engaging, enjoyable and packed with the action a reader expects in a good crime novel.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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Tree of Codes

Erasures. If one can think of writing as performance art, the best example of the genre might be Jonathan Safran Foer’s Tree of Codes. The printers of this book show their skill in producing the book, as every page is full of die cut openings where text was removed. What remains is a pain to read, and reveals a story within the story. This is the oddest book I’ve read in a long time, and I admit that I just didn’t get it. Happily, the reading experience was fairly brief. If you’re looking for an unusual reading experience, consider this strange book.

Rating: One-star (Read only if your interest is strong)
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A Death in Summer

Perversions. The pleasure that John Banville must feel as he writes mysteries under the penname Benjamin Black comes across on the pages of each novel. The latest, A Death in Summer, reprises the brooding Dr. Quirke, and explores more seedy aspects of life in Dublin in the 1950s. There’s a murder that sets the action in motion, and then all the connections and motives and tension is laid out for readers. Figuring things out becomes incidental to the pleasure of enjoying fine writing.

Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended)
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Tigerlily's Orchids

Neighbors. The neighbors in and around Lichfield House provide the interest and tension in Ruth Rendell’s novel, Tigerlily’s Orchids. She presents these characters in ways that increase a reader’s interest as we come to see that these people are not who they seem to be. The ways in which their lives become intertwined reveal Rendell’s writing skills and provide rich entertainment for readers. The fact that there is a murder becomes incidental to this mystery writer’s ability to keep readers engaged.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion

Sensational. Readers who appreciate fine writing will find all the elements present in Ron Hansen’s latest novel, A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion. The characters and plot are drawn from a real crime from New York in the 1920’s. Ruth Synder’s unhappy marriage to Alfred sets the stage for her affair with Judd Gray, a traveling corset salesman, and Alfred’s murder. Hansen soars in bringing to life the depth of each key character and the sensuality and sensational aspects of their lives. Readers may not empathize with these characters, but they become believable and their passion is real. Crime and punishment are presented with a precision in writing that many readers will find enjoyable.

Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended)
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The Jefferson Key

Pirates. Steve Berry’s latest Cotton Malone adventure, The Jefferson Key, departs from the prior overseas settings and places the protagonist and four hundred pages of exciting action in the United States. While Berry’s dialogue remains weak, the fast-paced plot and imaginative premise will entertain most readers who like thrillers. Government-sanctioned piracy conducted by the same elite North Carolina families for generations will be considered perfectly plausible by some readers and laughable by others. This novel provides quick and entertaining summer reading for those readers who can tolerate mediocre writing.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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