Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today

Stars. Readers interested in the American military or leadership are those most likely to enjoy Thomas E. Rick’s book, The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today. Ricks explores an interesting question: why is it that the generals in World War II were respected and successful, while most since then have failed. I found this book to be well-researched and presented with clarity and insight. Ricks explores the isolation of modern generals, who are treated like rock stars. There’s a modern bias toward conformity and a culture of entitlement. Because rotation takes place so often leaders don’t know their subordinates. Leaders are rarely relieved of duty when they fail. The model of effective military leadership, George Marshall, behaved quite differently when he fired ineffective generals and rewarded individuality by selecting the right person for the right job. My blood boiled when I read Rick’s insight into some of our modern generals. Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended) Click here to purchase The Generals from amazon.com.

Killing Kennedy: The End of Camelot

Selective. There’s one thing for sure that I can say about Bill O’Reilly: he comes across with confidence and certainty, no matter what. In his book Killing Kennedy: The End of Camelot, written with Martin Dugard, O’Reilly animates the build-up to the assassination of John Kennedy. He selects highlights from the Kennedy presidency and the political environment, injects the swagger of his confidence and certainty and keeps readers begging for more. Some historians need great communicators to convey the results of their research. Some events are not well known and can benefit from being promulgated. I learned nothing new here; the well-known story was retold clearly. For readers who want a refresher on the Kennedy years and the assassination, this book provides a crisp way to skim through the surface of what happened. Readers who like that kind of dramatic, brisk and selective presentation of history are those most likely to enjoy this book. Rating: Two-star (Mildly Recommended) Click here to purchase Killing Kennedy from amazon.com.

Company Orders

Brisk. I read David J. Walker’s Company Orders in two sittings. The plot’s pace started quickly and seemed to accelerate. I wanted to finish the novel so that I could breathe easier. Protagonist Paul Clark is a Catholic priest in Chicago. His comfortable life gets upended and he ends up in Guyanese jungle fighting for his life. Walker tells a great story, and develops characters quickly and effectively. Readers who like an action-packed mystery are those most likely to enjoy this one. Rating: Three-star (Recommended) Click here to purchase Company Orders from amazon.com.

Unassisted Living: Ageless Homes for Later Life

Showy. I am the target demographic for a book by architect Wid Chapman and gerontologist Jeffrey P. Rosenfeld titled, Unassisted Living: Ageless Homes for Later Life. The 33 homes presented in this book are intended to provide readers with examples of home design that can allow for alternatives to the senior housing choices of earlier generations. I found all the spaces to be severe and cold. They contained lots of open space, designed for show more than for daily living and practical utilization of space. There’s fine photography to present these houses, but most floor plans were far too small to read or interpret accurately, in other words: useless. I found that few of these unusual buildings respected their settings: most look like they crash landed. Take a pass on this book unless you find from a sample that you think you can find something useful here for you. Rating: One-star (Read if your interest is strong) Click here to purchase Unassisted Living from amazon.com.


Pieces. I admit to being befuddled by Aatish Taseer’s novel, Noon. If the four sections of the book make sense as a whole, I didn’t get it. Each on its own seemed finely written and interesting, but my reaction when I finished the whole novel was: “huh?” The character holding together the four pieces is Rehan Tabassum. In the first chapter, he recalls the departure of his father from India to Pakistan. The second involves Rehan’s relationship with his stepfather, a wealthy industrialist. The third chapter involves the reaction to a theft and the place of servants in Indian society. The final section is set in Pakistan. Throughout the book, Taseer presents episodes that highlight the contrasts in society. When I finished all the pieces, instead of a whole, I felt left with a recollection of anecdotes and pieces of a whole that left me blank and somewhat confused about what I had read. On the premise that others might see something here that I missed, I offer a mild recommendation for the novel, and suggest sampling an excerpt first. Rating: Two-star (Mildly Recommended) Click here to purchase Noon from amazon.com.

Dick Francis's Bloodline

Plodding. My patience was exhausted by the time I finished Felix Francis’ latest book titled, Dick Francis’s Bloodline. I wanted to shout: “get on with it!” A good mystery rewards readers with the satisfaction that comes from connecting clues and using at least a few brain cells in the process. Francis plods along a very slow pace in this novel and I found myself not caring a wit about solving the mystery, or what happened to any of the characters. I’ve read books from the Francis franchise for mild entertainment, but this latest novel left me even less entertained than usual. Readers who are keen on low levels of excitement and predictable mysteries are those most likely to enjoy this book. Rating: Two-star (Mildly Recommended) Click here to purchase Bloodline from amazon.com.

It's Fine By Me

Bleak. Readers who enjoy a closely examined character study without demanding an engaging plot are those most likely to enjoy Per Petterson’s novel, It’s Fine By Me. All is really not fine for protagonist and narrator Audun Sletten. When we meet him as a teenager, an age when most want to be liked and to blend in with their peers, Audun prefers separation, marked by the dark glasses he refuses to remove indoors. Petterson mines the extent of pain in Audun’s life and presents a bleak family life in a cold landscape as a young man copes with sadness and alienation. Rating: Three-star (Recommended) Click here to purchase It’s Fine By Me from amazon.com.

The Cursing Mommy's Book of Days: A Novel

Weary. Ian Frazier expanded his Cursing Mommy character from brief New Yorker pieces into a novel titled, The Cursing Mommy’s Book of Days. While I laughed at some parts of this book, I became weary before long, and there just weren’t enough funny bits to keep me entertained. Structured like a diary, some entries were terrific, and others fell flat for me. At his best, Frazier is hilarious, and the Cursing Mommy expresses her frustration with life with precision cursing that caused me great delight. The hilarity was spread a little too thin, and after a while I became tired of the Cursing Mommy and was ready to emit a curse or two of my own. Rating: Two-star (Mildly Recommended) Click here to purchase The Cursing Mommy’s Book of Days from amazon.com.

Monkey Mind: A Memoir of Anxiety

Disclosure. People are funny. Most of us enjoy spending time with those people who can laugh at themselves or who are willing to tell self-deprecating stories. Readers can experience that enjoyment from Daniel Smith’s book, Monkey Mind: A Memoir of Anxiety. Smith has suffered from profound anxiety, and he describes some of his life experiences with great wit as well as insight. I experience what I suspect to be an average level of anxiety, so what Smith has faced is far outside my personal experience. Memoirs can introduce readers to aspects of human behavior that can be enlightening. Smith’s disclosure of the extent of his anxiety may comfort those who are severely anxious. General readers can find insight on these pages into what others face in their daily lives. Rating: Three-star (Recommended) Click here to purchase Monkey Mind from amazon.com.

The Prisoner of Heaven

Atmospheric. Having enjoyed The Angel’s Game, I readily picked up Carlos Ruiz Zafron’s novel, The Prisoner of Heaven, another part of his series of an uncertain number of books set in Barcelona involving the Cemetery of Forgotten Books . Zafron’s prose is highly descriptive, and for readers of the earlier novels, the characters are immediately familiar and recalled. Zafron sets this novel in two time periods, 1939 and 1958, and he develops more fully the characters of Fermín Romero de Torres, David Martin and Daniel Sempere. When I finished this novel, I considered reading the earlier novels again, expecting even more pleasure from them all. Readers who like novels in which the setting and time period come alive and descriptive language dominates in creating a realistic atmosphere, are those most likely to enjoy this novel and the others in the series. Rating: Three-star (Recommended) Click here to purchase The Prisoner of Heaven from amazon.com.

The Chemistry of Tears

Broken. The protagonist of Peter Carey’s novel, The Chemistry of Tears, finds herself brokenhearted at the sudden death of her lover. Catherine Gehrig hides her grief because her lover was a married man, and few knew about their relationship. Her boss offers a chance toward healing by offering a new work assignment: the restoration of a nineteenth century mechanical device. Catherine becomes obsessed with the device and its commissioner, Henry Brandling, who saw the device as a way to heal his ill son. Carey weaves together the stories of Catherine and Henry through the use of lyrical prose and deep insight into human behavior. I was captivated by Carey’s fine writing and enjoyed the display of his talent and cleverness. Intelligent readers with patience to accept indirect plot and satisfaction with the unresolved messiness of life are those most likely to enjoy this novel. Rating: Three-star (Recommended) Click here to purchase The Chemistry of Tears from amazon.com.

Dogfight: The 2012 Presidential Campaign in Verse

Waggery. Political junkies of all persuasions will find a laugh or two when reading Calvin Trillin’s Dogfight: The 2012 Presidential Campaign in Verse. I prefer Trillin’s prose over his poetry, but found a few laughs in this short book. The account of Callista Gingrich’s cough is the best of the lot, in my opinion. There’s more content on the Republican side, given the primary contest, but Trillin pokes some merry wit at Obama as well. Readers who have the courage to revisit the 2012 campaign and can do it with the intention of laughing are those most likely to enjoy this book. Rating: Three-star (Recommended) Click here to purchase Dogfight from amazon.com.

All Gone: A Memoir of My Mother's Dementia. With Refreshments

Nourishment. The clarity and candor of Alex Witchel’s writing made reading her latest book a delight. In All Gone: A Memoir of My Mother’s Dementia. With Refreshments, Witchel expresses the range of reactions when her mother experiences dementia. There’s a way in which Witchel deals with the grief of being with someone who is both present and absent, changed and the same. Through cooking, especially the comfort foods of childhood, Witchel struggles to reconnect the broken links in their shared lives. The meatloaf alone is a reason to read this book. Anyone close to the struggle of those facing dementia and their loved ones will find hope and nourishment in this finely written book. Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended) Click here to purchase All Gone from amazon.com.

Sad Desk Salad

Lighthearted. Jessica Grose’s debut novel, Sad Desk Salad, is a humorous excursion into the out-of-balance and conflicted life of a blogger. Protagonist Alex Lyons writes a gossip blog for the site Chick Habit. The pressure of feeding the blog with new posts leads Alex to bathe irregularly, dress in a dirty muumuu and eat a salad at her home desk when she has time to eat. She hopes her audience of women at work eating their own sad desk salads will generate lots of hits, especially for her lunchtime posts, because she fears losing her job. Her relationships experience the impact of her stress as she addresses the concerns of how much privacy the web allows. I found this novel to be funny in many places, while the subject matter allowed for a degree of seriousness. I expect the target audience for the novel is young women, so readers in that demographic should certainly sample an excerpt to see if this style is to your taste. For an older guy, this was not humorous enough to rate a recommendation for humor. If it is satire or parody, I didn’t get it. I was mildly entertained as Grose took me in a lighthearted way into a world I know little about and to characters for whom I developed no empathy. Rating: Two-star (Mildly Recommended) Click here to purchase Sad Desk Salad from amazon.com.

The Fateful History of Fannie Mae: New Deal Birth to Mortgage Crisis Fall

Quasi. Readers looking for a deeper understanding of the rise and fall of Fannie Mae will find a crisp account of the past seven decades of that organization’s highlights and lowlights in James R. Hagerty’s book, The Fateful History of Fannie Mae: New Deal Birth to Mortgage Crisis Fall. Bob Hagerty is a reporter for The Wall Street Journal who has covered the mortgage business and the government sponsored enterprises (GSEs) extensively. He relates how a public purpose was paired with private capital to create a quasi-governmental entity that became the largest holder of residential mortgage debt. Political machinations over many years led to inadequate capital and a weak regulatory framework. Investors took gains in the good years and taxpayers are now covering losses. I worked at Freddie Mac from the mid-1970s to the late-1990s, so I know the subject of this book from an inside perspective. Hagerty gets all the headlines right in this book. There is more to each story than what he presents, but those nuances may be meaningful only to those who were immersed in the business. General readers will find in this book a cogent presentation of how Fannie Mae came to be, to grow and to generate huge losses. Any reader with an interest in public policy, especially relating to housing, will enjoy reading this book. Rating: Three-star (Recommended) Click here to purchase The Fateful History of Fannie Mae from amazon.com.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Why I Left Goldman Sachs: A Wall Street Story

Junior. Greg Smith expanded the fifteen minutes of fame he earned by resigning from Goldman Sachs in a startling 1500 word New York Times editorial and has written a 250 page memoir titled Why I Left Goldman Sachs: A Wall Street Story. All memoir becomes a matter of perspective, and Smith’s junior role at Goldman gave him a perspective that represents one slice of the firm and one set of experiences. Reading this book is like eavesdropping, bringing the reader into places where we might not normally be, to the point where there was entirely too much recollection of chatting at urinals. Yuk. That and other unnecessary contexts pack this book with anecdotes that meant something to Smith, but not to many others. His main point is that his values and the behavior he saw at his company became misaligned. From p. 236, “I knew in my heart there was something deeply wrong in the way people were behaving, in the way they didn’t care about the repercussions, in the way they saw their clients as their adversaries.” Readers who want an inside view of Goldman will get a sliver here. Readers who like a coming-of-age memoir are likely to find this one interesting. Any reader expecting the revelation of secrets won’t find them in this book. Rating: Three-star (Recommended) Click here to purchase Why I Left Goldman Sachs from amazon.com.


Confusing. Readers with a high tolerance for confusion and with patience to allow ambiguity to last a long time are those most likely to enjoy reading Zadie Smith’s NW. I was infuriated and confused for at least the first half of the book. I struggled to try to piece together what Smith presents which required me to allow her to take me where she chose, not where I expected or preferred to go. By the end of the novel, I felt it was an unusual experience, but her writing was worth my time. After I finished, I read part of the beginning of the novel again, and felt far less confused than I did on the first reading. I recommend sampling an excerpt before plunging into this creative and unusual novel. Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended) Click here to purchase NW from amazon.com.

In Sunlight and in Shadow

Images. If you’re looking for a long novel to enjoy on these cold winter nights, consider Mark Helprin’s In Sunlight and in Shadow. The vivid images of Manhattan after World War II provide a lush backdrop for two main motifs: a love story between protagonist Harry Copeland and heiress Catherine Thomas Hale, and Harry’s violent encounters with the protection racket. Harry inherited a struggling leather goods business from his father, and Catherine is the only child of a wealthy Wall Street financier. If there is such a thing as a character who is too virtuous, Helprin may have created one in Harry. Without fail, against all obstacles, Harry’s character remains steadfast in doing what’s right. The light and dark themes from the title to the descriptive language to the scenes of love and war, provide striking contrasts of the best and worst in human nature and behavior. This is a big book set in a big city addressing big issues. Readers who like to become immersed in a place and time alongside likeable heroes and wicked villains are those most likely to enjoy this lushly written and satisfying book. Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended) Click here to purchase In Sunlight and in Shadow from amazon.com.

Ancient Light

Memory. I find that as I get older the sharpness of my memory comes into very clear focus, especially when I recall people or events decades ago. John Banville writes lyrically about memory in his novel Ancient Light. I read this novel slowly and savored the fine language. I found myself pausing to reread Banvillle’s choice of words and appreciate how perfectly constructed his prose can be. I’ve liked Banville’s crime novels written as Benjamin Black, and that quick pace and unadorned language is a sharp contrast to this more literary style of fiction. Readers who like detailed images and finely crafted prose are those most likely to enjoy this finely written novel. Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended) Click here to purchase Ancient Light from amazon.com.

Live by Night

Gangster. It’s the vivid storytelling that brought me pleasure while reading Dennis Lehane’s Live by Night. I wanted to know what would happen next in the fascinating life of Joe Coughlin. As the criminal son of a senior Boston police executive, there were many directions that Joe’s life could take. Lehane plucks him from Boston and delivers him to Tampa where he turns around a flailing criminal enterprise and makes millions during Prohibition. Readers who like novels mostly for the story are those who are likely to enjoy this one. Rating: Three-star (Recommended) Click here to purchase Live by Night from amazon.com.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Garment of Shadows

Surprises. Morocco is the setting for Garment of Shadows, the latest Laurie King novel featuring Sherlock Holmes and Mary Russell. King takes a familiar character, Holmes, and pairs him with Russell, his intellectual equal, and places them in settings outside England. Fans of intelligent mysteries, packed with surprises, fleshed out by well-developed characters and just the right amount of descriptive language, are those most likely to enjoy this novel and the others in this series. I read this novel quickly and enjoyed every page. Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended) Click here to purchase Garment of Shadows from amazon.com.

The Testament of Mary

Viewpoint. Of the many thousands of pages ever written about the Blessed Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus, none are quite like those in a novella from Colm Toibin titled, The Testament of Mary. After I finished the book, I thought about the way a friend once asked and answered as follows: “Did you ever wonder why the Madonna has a wistful look on her face in all the depictions of mother and child in art? It’s because she was thinking as she looked at the baby Jesus, ‘I was hoping for a girl.’” If you don’t find that statement offensive, this book is right up your alley. Toibin offers a viewpoint of what Mary may have thought late in her life. As a witness to the death of her son, Toibin has her feeling that his death was not worth it. From page 80: “ ‘I was there,’ I said. ‘I fled before it was over but if you want witnesses then I am one and I can tell you now, when you say that he redeemed the world, I will say that it was not worth it. It was not worth it.’” The humanity of a mother whom we would all recognize comes through on the pages of this novella. Toibin’s writing is superb, whether you agree with his viewpoint or not. Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended) Click here to purchase The Testament of Mary from amazon.com.

Bull by the Horns: Fighting to Save Main Street from Wall Street and Wall Street from Itself

Selective. In a remarkable show of restraint in her account of her service as chair of the FDIC, Sheila Bair waited until page two before she slammed Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner. Bull by the Horns: Fighting to Save Main Street from Wall Street and Wall Street from Itself presents one piece of the puzzle surrounding the recent financial crisis. I was captivated by Bair’s account from beginning to end, and when I finished I felt like I can’t wait for Geithner’s version of events. One jab from page 170: “Tim seemed to view his job as protecting Citigroup from me, when he should have been worried about protecting the taxpayers from Citi.” Ouch. This book isn’t all about Bair vs. Geithner. Bair explains her focused role: protecting the FDIC from losses. Combined with the books released and forthcoming from other key participants, readers interested in finance and public policy will be able to assemble a comprehensive view only if one reads every perspective. Rating: Three-star (Recommended) Click here to purchase Bull by the Horns from amazon.com.

The Marseille Caper

Deceptions. I zipped through Peter Mayle’s The Marseille Caper in a single evening. The plot is fast-paced, the characters are developed well enough, and the descriptions of place are just right. Because Mayle reprised characters from another novel I read, The Vintage Caper, I felt like I picked up the new novel where the old one left off. The latest novel can stand well on its own if a reader prefers to start here. I don’t know if Mayle will continue with these characters in future novels, but if he does, I’m likely to read them. Any reader who likes crime fiction that comes packed with a range of deceptions will enjoy this one. I also found that the glass of wine I sipped during the second half of the novel helped cheer me to a satisfying end. Rating: Three-star (Recommended) Click here to purchase The Marseille Caper from amazon.com.

She Loves Me Not

Variety. The nineteen stories in Ron Hansen’s new collection, She Loves Me Not, provide readers who love short fiction with a tasty smorgasbord. Through efficiency and precision, Hansen drew me into the lives and settings of people whose behavior displays a wide range of human nature. I found myself reading two stories in the morning and two in the evening as a way to pace myself and reflect on each one individually. Readers who savor fine writing and enjoy diverse characters and geography are those most likely to enjoy this collection. Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended) Click here to purchase She Loves Me Not from amazon.com.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Who I Am: A Memoir

Creativity. When I opened Pete Townshend’s memoir, Who I Am, I expected to read a revealing story about a talented and troubled artist. I found that and more on the pages of this finely written book. I was surprised at the high quality of Townshend’s writing. He tells his story with precision and care, and any reader who enjoys this genre will come away from this book very satisfied. Whether you like music, creativity or human nature, there’s something beneficial for you on these pages. Unlike the tell-all sensationalism in some celebrity memoirs, I felt that Townshend was trying to reveal with candor and insight how he has become who he is. That’s exactly the value that can be derived from reading a finely written memoir like this one. Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended) Click here to purchase Who I Am from amazon.com.

Sorry Please Thank You

Zany. Readers looking for some laughs should consider Charles Yu’s story collection titled, Sorry Please Thank You. Yu’s blend of science fiction and reality can provide settings that are ripe for laughter. Yu’s voice is unusual and might be an acquired taste for some readers. Sample a selection to see if this will be entertaining for you. I found these stories to be funny and creative. I enjoyed each one. Rating: Three-star (Recommended) Click here to purchase Sorry Please Thank You from amazon.com.

The Importance of Being Seven

Habitual. Readers who enjoy light fiction but have trouble finding the time to read a novel should consider Alexander McCall Smith’s 44 Scotland Street series. Smith created this series in daily installments for The Scotsman and he presents a cast of characters engaged in everyday life in Edinburgh. A reader can enjoy a single installment in a few minutes and come away satisfied. The sixth and latest in the series, The Importance of Being Seven, advances the story for fans who have read the earlier installments. A new reader could start here and still be satisfied. Once in the habit of reading a little bit every day, before one knows it, another book is finished. The characters are endearing, the plot is interesting, and human nature is revealed. Rating: Three-star (Recommended) Click here to purchase The Importance of Being Seven from amazon.com.

The Lower River

Aid. Things are often not as they appear in Paul Theroux’s novel, The Lower River. Spend a few hours with protagonist Ellis Hock in Malawi and you’ll feel better about your life, no matter how unhappy you may be, or how much you struggle. Hock has left behind his unhappy Massachusetts life in his early sixties and returns to a place where he had found happiness four decades earlier. With a plan to help the people of the remote and desolate Lower River, Hock finds himself powerless and trapped. Theroux presents a dark side of philanthropy that shows how aid may not always be helpful. The plot twists are complex and entertaining, and Theroux’s descriptions of the setting provide a vivid picture of the environment, especially if you like snakes. Rating: Three-star (Recommended) Click here to purchase The Lower River from amazon.com.

The Jewels of Paradise

Inheritance. I opened Donna Leon’s novel, The Jewels of Paradise, knowing that it was a departure from her popular series of mystery novels featuring Commissario Guido Brunetti. I eagerly anticipated savoring any new area of interest for this writer whose work I have enjoyed. Set in Venice, Leon presents a female protagonist, Caterina Pellegrini, who has returned to her hometown with a doctorate in baroque opera to research the contents of two trunks containing the possessions of a cleric and composer dead for three centuries. Two cousins want to confirm their rights to inherit these contents which according to family lore contain treasure. For the first hundred pages, I tried to enjoy the exposition, but found it plodding and boring. After the halfway point, I rushed ahead to finish, never feeling satisfied with characters or plot. Readers who love Venice may find some passages delightful. Fans of the Brunetti series need to be able to set that pleasure aside and be open to a new style in this novel. For me, Leon squandered her Brunetti inheritance on this novel. Rating: Two-star (Mildly Recommended) Click here to purchase The Jewels of Paradise from amazon.com.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Lionel Asbo: State of England

Prison. If you love social satire and superb writing, you’re likely to enjoy Martin Amis’ novel, Lionel Asbo: State of England. The lower class world of modern London provides the energy for Amis to display his great writing talent. Protagonist Lionel Asbo is a thug and a sociopath who changed his name from Pepperdine to Asbo, as a homage to his major accomplishment in life thus far: anti-social behavior orders from the time he was three years old. Another skill is his ability to train dogs to be vicious. The calmest periods in Lionel’s life are when he is in prison. While there he learns that he has won 140 million pounds in the lottery. The result is that he has become a celebrity thug and his over the top behavior is exactly what a reader would expect. The remaining members of the cast of characters are presented with precision, especially nephew Desmond Pepperdine, and Lionel’s mother, Grace. The language is pitch perfect in its garble, and the humor soars. There’s love and hate on these pages, true evil and abiding goodness. Readers who appreciate fine writing and careful language selection are those most likely to enjoy this novel. Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended) Click here to purchase Lionel Asbo from amazon.com.

Winter of the World

Middle. The twentieth century moves to the middle third as Ken Follett follows the lives of the families he introduced in Fall of Giants as another generation matures in Winter of the World, the second installment of the trilogy. Readers have another thousand pages to follow the lives of characters in the run up to World War II and its aftermath. I can imagine a wall chart that Follett must have created to highlight the key events of the twentieth century, and then deciding how those events can be presented in the lives of his large cast of characters. For readers who read the first novel, this is the anticipated continuation of the story. New readers could begin here, but for the sake of continuity, it makes more sense to start with the first installment. With two thousand pages read, it’s all downhill from here as fans await the third and final installment. If you like historical fiction, you’re likely to enjoy an immersion in this one. Rating: Three-star (Recommended) Click here to purchase Winter of the World from amazon.com.

Ghosts of Manhattan

Jerks. I wanted to like Douglas Brunt’s debut novel, Ghosts of Manhattan, but I remained distracted by the stereotyped characters and Brunt’s inability to flesh them out with more insight and depth. Protagonist Nick Farmer is a bond trader at Bear Stearns, and the lifestyle he pursues is wearing him down and hurting his marriage. Set between 2005 and 2007, the knowledge about the collapse of Bear sits with the reader, but remains a future event, outside the scope of the novel. So many of the adult characters are presented as adolescent jerks that the distraction of drinking, drugs, strippers and hookers became too central a focus for this novel to succeed. There are a dozen or so terrific pages in the almost three hundred pages of this book. Readers patient enough to wade through it all are likely to be rewarded. Those readers with a clear notion of Wall Street employment being a hedonistic lifestyle will be confirmed in their views when they read this novel. Rating: Two-star (Mildly Recommended) Click here to purchase Ghosts of Manhattan from amazon.com.

The St. Zita Society

Doors. I can almost picture Ruth Rendell sitting on a bench and observing the comings and goings of residents and their employees on a block in London. She imagined the upstairs and downstairs lives of these people and presents them in a tightly written novel titled, The St. Zita Society, a reference to a newly formed association of the employees on this street. In fewer than three hundred pages, Rendell introduces a cast of characters, develops them vividly, and presents a plot that was absorbing and entertaining. She takes us behind closed doors and reveals the life inside. Readers who like finely written crime fiction are those most likely to enjoy this book. Rating: Three-star (Recommended) Click here to purchase The St. Zita Society from amazon.com.

The Racketeer

Planning. It’s tough to present a jailed attorney as a heroic figure, but that’s what John Grisham pulls off in his novel, The Racketeer. Malcolm Bannister resides in a federal prison in the fifth year of a ten-year sentence he feels he received unjustly for his involvement in a money laundering scheme. After a federal judge is murdered, Bannister knows who the murderer is, and the plot of the novel involves the intricate plan Bannister develops and executes to extract revenge on the government and reward for himself. Grisham presents a great protagonist in this novel, and a plot that can entertain any reader who likes this genre. Rating: Three-star (Recommended) Click here to purchase The Racketeer from amazon.com.

The Lost Bank: The Story of Washington Mutual-The Biggest Bank Failure in American History

Choices. Any reader interested in the financial crisis should read Kirsten Grind’s The Lost Bank: The Story of Washington Mutual-The Biggest Bank Failure in American History. Through lots of interviews and research, Grind digs into the weeds of what happened at Wamu, and finds ways to keep readers engaged and interested in the story of the people and their decisions. This is a story about choices: the selection of people for certain jobs, and the decisions they made. The contrast between two former CEOs was enlightening: Lou Pepper and Kerry Killinger selected choices that made the bank strong in the former case and weak in the latter. I was entertained, captivated, enthralled and angered by this story. Grind does a great job in bringing a company to life and in explaining a complicated story in a way that all readers can easily understand. Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended) Click here to purchase The Lost Bank from amazon.com.

Robert B. Parker's Fool Me Twice

Again. One of these days I will stop reading the novels that continue the brand of the late Robert B. Parker. In the meantime, I’m having trouble breaking the habit, so I read the latest Jesse Stone novel from Michael Brandman titled, Robert B. Parker’s Fool Me Twice. The busy summer in Paradise, Massachusetts becomes even more hectic when a Hollywood movie crew arrives to shoot a film. Of course, since this is a crime novel, that’s not all that’s shot. Jesse is on the job, and by the end of the novel, everything is resolved. Readers who like character-based crime fiction are those most likely to enjoy this one. Rating: Three-star (Recommended) Click here to purchase Fool Me Twice from amazon.com.

A Conspiracy of Friends

Complications. The prolific author Alexander McCall Smith titled the third installment of his Corduroy Mansions series, A Conspiracy of Friends. Readers of the earlier novels will be delighted by the return of a familiar cast of London characters, including the terrier, Freddie de la Hay, whose presence and character is as fully developed as his human companions. Smith presents the growing complications in the lives of these characters, and by the end of the novel, readers will have enjoyed spending time with these interesting people, and will await the next installment. Those readers who are new to the series might start here and wonder why would anyone care about these characters. It’s best to start at the beginning and join those readers who love the ways in which Smith develops characters whose lives become interesting to readers and whose struggles and foibles can be similar to our own. Rating: Three-star (Recommended) Click here to purchase A Conspiracy of Friends from amazon.com.

Merge / Disciple: Two Short Novels from Crosstown to Oblivion

Possibilities. The short novels that Walter Mosley writes in his Crosstown to Oblivion series are finely written and quick to read. The latest, Merge/Disciple, includes two novellas that are paired as perfectly as when a wine complements a tasty plate of food. Mosley riffs on an expanded reality and what may be possible. In Merge, a lottery winner uncovers a richer treasure than his winnings. In Disciple, the protagonist finds himself promoted from being a data entry clerk to the head of a company. However unlikely the plot, readers are likely to enjoy the tightly written prose and the big questions underlying the stories. Mosley is a fine writer and readers who like to think about life and its possibilities are those most likely to enjoy these two short novels. Rating: Three-star (Recommended) Click here to purchase Merge Disciple from amazon.com.

The Tombs

Travels. Sam and Remi Fargo are back for another fast-paced adventure in Clive Cussler’s novel, The Tombs. They match their wits against an evil Russian businessman as they race to locate and uncover the hidden tomb of Attila the Hun. It’s no spoiler to say that the good guys win in the end. Along the way, their travels proceed quickly, and the action makes for very quick and entertaining reading. Fans of action novels with sharply drawn characters are those most likely to enjoy this one. Rating: Three-star (Recommended) Click here to purchase The Tombs from amazon.com.

Monday, October 29, 2012

The Orchardist

Fruitful. The Orchardist is a finely written debut novel by Amanda Coplin. Set in the Wenatchee Valley area of Washington at the turn of the twentieth century, this novel excels in many ways. The characters are vividly drawn and the love and caring they express in the face of pain and turmoil maintains an emotional authenticity that could have crossed into melodrama, but never did. The setting and time period come alive through carefully chosen descriptive language that was often poetic. Coplin accomplishes something a debut novelist often misses: she helps readers care deeply for these characters and feel moved by what happens in their lives. We look to fiction to help us understand human nature more fully. Readers who want to spend time in that pursuit will find reading this novel to be a fruitful experience. Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended) Click here to purchase The Orchardist from amazon.com.

The Geneva Trap

Loyalty. Stella Rimington’s latest Liz Carlyle novel is titled The Geneva Trap. Readers who like fast-paced spy novels are those most likely to enjoy this one. The puzzle pieces are complex enough to keep most readers interested to the end, as Liz tries to solve a case that has connections to her past and to loved ones. A theme of the importance of loyalty runs throughout the novel providing a thread for the action. Rimington’s own MI5 experience informs the ways in which she presents the world of espionage. I read this novel quickly and was entertained by both characters and plot. Rating: Three-star (Recommended) Click here to purchase The Geneva Trap from amazon.com.

Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President

Harm. It’s a rare work of non-fiction that can appeal simultaneously to those who love history, medicine, science, politics and a well-told story. Candice Millard pleases readers of all types in her book, Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President. She presents the shooting of President James Garfield and his treatment by physicians who did more harm than good. Alexander Graham Bell works day and night to invent a device that aid in Garfield’s treatment. Millard maintains momentum as she presents this lively, interesting and entertaining story, packed with details but never tedious. I learned much about Garfield and the practice of medicine in 1881. Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended) Click here to purchase Destiny of the Republic from amazon.com.


Voice. The black book jacket with the single word title, Mortality, provides a crisp and clear summary of what to expect in Christopher Hitchens’ last book. Curious to the end, Hitchens finds just the right words to convey the experience of his dying. This fine writer’s voice remains lucid as he probes the journey to his death with insight into our human situation and the fact of our mortality. Any reader who wants to engage in an exploration of dying should read this finely written book. Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended) Click here to purchase Mortality from amazon.com.

Say Nice Things About Detroit

Hometown. Fans of Detroit along with readers who like novels set in vibrant urban settings are those most likely to enjoy Scott Lasser’s novel, Say Nice Things About Detroit. Protagonist David Halpert returns to his hometown Detroit from Colorado and finds hope and a new life. Lasser presents interesting characters and a satisfactory plot. Any reader finishing this novel will come away with good feelings about Detroit and about the capacity of individuals to find hope and love in the face of any kind of trouble. Rating: Three-star (Recommended) Click here to purchase Say Nice Things About Detroit from amazon.com.

Friday, October 26, 2012

The Twelve

Transition. The good news is that the second novel of Justin Cronin’s trilogy, The Twelve, came in three hundred pages shorter than The Passage which opened the series. The bad news is that while you can read the current novel on its own, you’ll understand the material far better if you pay the 800 page price of reading the first one. The other bad news is that Cronin needs to wrap up the story in an upcoming novel, and my guess is that the third novel will be a long one. So be careful, once you start, you’re likely to endure to the end. This trilogy tells of a scientific experiment gone bad and what happened to people and cities. Cronin excels at character development, and both the good and bad ones are drawn with precision. The plot is complex and entertaining. Readers who like big sweeping books with dark themes are those most likely to enjoy this one. Rating: Three-star (Recommended) Click here to purchase The Twelve from amazon.com.

Where'd You Go, Bernadette

Funny. Maria Semple’s novel, Where’d You Go Bernadette, kept me laughing from beginning to end. Bernadette is the average Seattle stay-at-home Mom: she won a McArthur genius award; her husband Elgin is a Microsoft executive leading a two hundred person team on a project involving mind control; and fifteen year old only child, Bee, is a prodigy who convinces her parents to reward her good grades with a Christmas vacation to Antarctica. Bee’s private school, fellow students and their parents are ripe for parody, and Semple mines that thread with great wit. Anyone familiar with that setting will laugh out loud. Bernadette uses a virtual assistant in India to handle much of the logistics of her life, because her social anxiety or agoraphobia leads her to stay close to home. In the tradition of I Love Lucy, the things that can go wrong do, and misunderstandings have significant consequences. Readers looking to read something both intelligent and funny should consider this novel. Rating: Three-star (Recommended) Click here to purchase Where’d You Go Bernadette from amazon.com.

A Good Man: Rediscovering My Father, Sargent Shriver

Tribute. Readers looking for their spirits to be uplifted should pick up Mark Shriver’s tribute to the life of his father titled, A Good Man: Rediscovering My Father, Sargent Shriver. I smiled and teared up at different parts of this book and finished it feeling terrific. So many dimensions of Sarge Shriver come alive on these pages: his optimism, public service, wise parenting, faith, and hard work. We can become jaded and cynical about the lives of public figures, especially when they seem hypocritical or self-dealing. This book reveals the inside view of a public figure who tried every day to be good and to do good. Rating: Three-star (Recommended) Click here to purchase A Good Man from amazon.com.

Sacred Ground: Pluralism, Prejudice, and the Promise of America

Connections. Eboo Patel’s reflections on what kind of country we are and what we aspire to be are thoughtful and lucid in his book, Sacred Ground: Pluralism, Prejudice, and the Promise of America. Using examples of his work as founder and president of Interfaith Youth Core, Patel presents the ways in which tolerance and understanding can lead to building a stronger America, reinforced by the strength of our connections with those in our community who are different from ourselves in one form or another. The increase in divisive rhetoric that expresses prejudice calls for a response. Pluralism has been an important element of the United States from our beginning, and Patel writes a compelling story of how by coming together we can reinforce that value and become a better nation. Rating: Three-star (Recommended) Click here to purchase Sacred Ground from amazon.com.

The Age of Miracles

Changes. Karen Thompson Walker’s debut novel, The Age of Miracles, presents a creative device to considering global calamity: the slowing of the earth’s rotation. Viewed from the perspective of an eleven year old girl, Julie, the changes in the length of a day, in her family, and in herself, are mined thoroughly by Walker as a coming of age story. Julie is drawn as a complete and complex character, whose observations are acute. Other characters are less well-developed, but the plot, dialogue and fine descriptive language offset that weakness. Readers looking for a fresh and creative voice should consider this well-written novel. Rating: Three-star (Recommended) Click here to purchase The Age of Miracles from amazon.com.