Monday, January 23, 2012

Quite Enough of Calvin Trillin: Forty Years of Funny Stuff

Seconds. I find that even on a second or third reading of a Calvin Trillin piece, I experience it as fresh and interesting. One of his latest collections, Quite Enough of Calvin Trillin, contained many essays I’ve read before, and I found re-reading them to be entertaining and enjoyable. His wit and writing style keeps a reader engaged, and he has a prodigious skill at observation and in selecting the perfect word and phrase. Readers who love fine and witty writing are those most likely to enjoy this book.

Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended)
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My New American Life

Plucky. Twenty-six year old Albanian immigrant Lula is the protagonist of Francine Prose’s novel, My New American Life. Prose captures many aspects of contemporary life circa 2005, and assembles a cast of characters to flesh out that time and show the contrast between suburban malaise and an immigrant’s struggle post-9/11. The plucky Lula is a survivor who stumbles through ways to make it in America. All the Albanian characters have a liveliness that contrasts with the sadness of the American characters. Readers who enjoy novels of social commentary are those most likely to enjoy this book.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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Black Diamond

Truffles. Chief of Police Bruno Courrèges returns in Black Diamond, the third novel of this series by Martin Walker. Something is amiss with the truffles coming to market, and Bruno is at the center of a complicated investigation with the stakes heightened by local elections that could put Bruno out of a job. Walker does a great job with the police procedural plot, in presenting interesting characters that readers care about, and in describing a place with lively and descriptive prose. I could almost taste the truffles and feel that I was in France. Readers who like light novels with clear plots are those most likely to enjoy this book.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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Rodin's Debutante

Artist. How is art formed? How is the artist formed? These are some of the questions that Ward Just explores in his finely written novel, Rodin’s Debutante. The core of the novel is a coming of age story about a man named Lee Goodell who grew up in a small town as the child of a prominent father, a judge who was the son of a judge. A side story involves Tommy Ogden a wealthy loner who prefers hunting and whoring over other pursuits. Ogden founds a school which Goodell attends. The novel explodes with the contrasts of beauty and the grittiness of life, and the real scars that Goodell experiences turn into his marbles, the sculptures he creates. Just creates vibrant characters and masterfully expresses powerful emotions with an economy of finely chosen words. Readers who enjoy thought provoking fiction are those most likely to enjoy this novel.

Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended)
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Mrs. Fox

Muse. Music lovers who appreciate amusing variations on a theme and those readers who are patient with an absence of plot sequence or logic are those most likely to enjoy Helen Oyeyemi’s novel, Mrs. Fox. I found many parts of the novel to be witty and I enjoyed the multiple ways in which Oyeyemi explores the story. After I while, I lost patience, and found myself concluding that this odd novel is for acquired tastes, and mine savors something a little less gamey.

Rating: Two-star (Mildly Recommended)
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Bleak. The prose in Charles Frazier’s novel, Nightwoods, is lyrical, the characters are richly developed, and the description he presents in a meandering plot presents a bleak life. In some ways, this novel explores the nature of love and evil, using a setting and characters that provide an ideal backdrop for the contrast between light and darkness and fire and water. Readers who are patient with a plot that can be a challenge to follow and who appreciate lyrical prose are those most likely to enjoy this novel.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Leopard

Inhumanity. Readers who can tolerate massive amounts of violence and inhumane acts described in detail can open Jo Nesbo’s novel, The Leopard, and settle right in. It’s helpful to have read the earlier novels in the Harry Hole series to understand why this protagonist has hit his nadir and is living a life of darkness in Hong Kong. Coerced home to Norway to solve yet another serial murder case, Hole who has subjected himself to great pain, faces even greater physical pain during this case. The plot is complicated, and it can be painful to an empathetic reader to watch the damaged Hole suffer. Harry Hole is a great character, and Nesbo’s writes well (probably better in the original Norwegian), and readers willing to spend time exploring the nature of evil will find this book engaging.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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Life Itself

Upbeat. Reading memoirs can be a crapshoot. Most readers of Roger Ebert’s memoir titled, Life Itself, will come away winners. We know Ebert from his decades of movie reviews in print and on television. Most of us also know that because of complications from treatment for thyroid cancer, he can no longer speak nor eat and his face is disfigured from the loss of bone. His voice comes through with ebullience in his animated writing. In his account, he’s had (and is having) a wonderful life. He’s worked hard at doing what he loves. He’s married to his soulmate, and thanks to AA, he quit drinking. He’s made friends all around the world, and his conversational writing style makes readers feel like we’re sitting at a dining room table listening to the stories of a life well lived. All that adds up to an inspiring memoir, well worth reading.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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The Drop

Twists. The latest detective Harry Bosch novel from Michael Connelly is titled, The Drop. Fans of the series and first-time readers can find equal pleasure in the exploits of this heroic, flawed protagonist whose moral compass distinguishes right from wrong with clarity. The world gets messier than he’d like it to be, and the good guys can let him down, while the bad guys also need justice. Can Harry overcome the demons that distract him and move on? Can he be a father and a detective? Will he find love again? Connelly writes a fine crime novel, and the character of Harry Bosch continues to develop and mature. Readers who like character-driven crime fiction are those most likely to enjoy this novel.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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Exile on Wall Street: One Analyst's Fight to Save the Big Banks from Themselves

Lonely. Mike Mayo has spent his career as a financial analyst specializing in banks. In his book, Exile on Wall Street, Mayo describes his early experience working at the Federal Reserve providing analysis on bank mergers, and then as a sell side stock analyst for a variety of Wall Street firms. Readers will come away from this book with the sense that Mayo is not a person inclined to get along and go along. He is willing to go against the views of those around him and come up with his independent judgment. His record shows him as being right more often than he was wrong. Instead of being acclaimed for his wise analysis, he was often treated as a pariah. Accepting that his account is one side of a story, this is an interesting description of the challenges involved in financial reform. Those readers interested in this subject will find the book quick to read and liable to induce further thinking on this subject.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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Death Comes to Pemberley

Curiosity. I was intrigued when I heard that the venerable mystery writer, P.D. James, chose to set her latest novel, Death Comes to Pemberley, in the place, time, and characters of Jane Austen. Curiosity brought me to this novel, and James’ skill at mystery writing kept me interested. I suspect that both Austen and James fans are likely to come away from this novel with some degree of disappointment. Darcy, Elizabeth, Wickham and others are familiar characters to most readers, but they are set in our minds from Austen’s writing. James may be true to many aspects of these well-developed characters, but she sets them in a situation that is unlike anything that Austen would have done. Along the way, readers get an interesting mystery to read, but one neither great nor memorable.

Rating: Two-star (Mildly Recommended)
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Expansive. Readers who like big, sweeping novels with empathetic characters are those most likely to enjoy Neal Stephenson’s latest novel, Reamde. Over the course of a thousand thrilling pages, Stephenson introduces hackers, gamers, mobsters, a big extended family, MI6, and terrorists. The heroes and villains are drawn with sharp contrasts, and the virtual world provides a second dimension in which the action can proceed, although the global stage in the real world covers a lot of territory which Stephenson handles with aplomb. I found myself rooting for the heroes and turned pages quickly wanting to see how everything turned out.

Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended)
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The Vault

Advisor. The retired life of former chief inspector Reginald Wexford takes on spikes of adrenalin in the latest novel titled The Vault, in this popular series by Ruth Rendell. Wexford has been asked to assist Tom Ede of the Metropolitan Police as an unpaid advisor helping solve a complicated multiple murder case. Wexford relishes the work, and finds himself forgetting that he’s no longer on the force since the work he is doing is so familiar. Rendell adds complexity to Wexford’s family life and those events close to home make Wexford even sharper as he unravels a complicated puzzle one piece at a time. Readers who like finely written mystery or crime novels are those most likely to enjoy this book.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Prague Cemetery

Hate. Can a novel about evil and hate be entertaining? In the competent hands of Umberto Eco, the answer is yes when it comes to his latest novel, The Prague Cemetery. Eco sets the novel in the tumultuous late 19th century, and all the characters except the protagonist are historical. That protagonist is the scheming, evil, hateful Simonini who gives voice and action to a wide range of vitriol and plots. An equal opportunity figure, Simonini hates Jesuits, Masons, Russians, Germans, French, and blames the Jews for everything. What Eco accomplishes in this portrayal of hate and evil is to give readers goose bumps that such evil lives among us now. Readers who like to think when we read are those most likely to enjoy this finely written novel.

Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended)
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Zero Day

Character. I read David Baldacci’s novels because I find them amusing and entertaining. I’m often most amused by poorly written dialogue or characters that are stereotypes or poorly developed. In his latest novel, Zero Day, Baldacci seems to start from scratch. He introduces a new heroic protagonist, John Puller, and I found myself recognizing the individual and rooting for his success. The fast pace of the plot and the thrilling action kept me turning pages quickly, and I found the dialogue was not as distracting as it had been in earlier Baldacci novels. Readers who like character-driven action thrillers are those most likely to enjoy this novel.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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American Emperor: Aaron Burr's Challenge to Jefferson's America

Schemer. Had two or three events turned out differently in the early 19th century, the United States would be a different place today. Attorney David O. Stewart brings a lawyer’s discipline and a litigator’s story telling together in a fascinating new book titled, American Emperor: Aaron Burr’s Challenge to Jefferson’s America. Burr is one of the most engaging characters in American history, and Stewart presents Burr’s vision of new society made up of the disgruntled communities around the Gulf of Mexico and the wide open Western part of the United States. Burr’s schemes are presented as treasonous and appealing to the secessionist leanings in many parts of the fragile new republic. Burr tried to capitalize on those sentiments and he came very close to achieving his vision. Fans of American history are those readers most likely to enjoy this finely written account.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman

Stupendous. Octogenarian Robert K. Massie has condensed the scale of his broad and deep knowledge of this subject into 650 pages of lively reading titled, Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman. Massie tells the story of her life, her struggles and her great successes with a level of detail and insight that will appeal to those readers of biography who crave for good stories and wise, critical examination. My knowledge of Catherine’s life was sketchy, so I was enthralled by Massie’s depiction of this enlightened leader’s prudence and risk taking. All readers will come away from this book with many reasons why she was a great leader.

Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended)
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The Sense of an Ending

Memories. In a clever novella, Julian Barnes delves into the notion of memory, and the difference in form between action and our constructed and amended memories. The Sense of an Ending is constrained and concise, and a reader is almost compelled to start re-reading once the last page is turned. There’s that “aha” sense that can propel a reader to take newly found insight and read again to see the book in new light. Readers who enjoy literary fiction and clever writing are those most likely to enjoy this short novel.

Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended)
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The Stranger's Child

Desire. The atmosphere, tension and drama that Alan Hollinghurst writes in his novel, The Stranger’s Child, carries readers through 450 pages of a sweeping novel spanning a century of time. Two families provide the focus of our attention, and the many forms of desire are spun out in ways that are witty, exacting in detail, and tragic. The character development and attention to detail bring to life past and modern times with precision. Readers who appreciate fine writing and who are willing to tolerate an indirect plot and paths that seem distracting are those most likely to enjoy this novel.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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Last Man in Tower

Solitary. Readers who enjoy fine writing that stimulates deep thinking should consider Aravind Adiga’s latest novel, Last Man in Tower. Sixty-one year old retired teacher, Masterji, is a widower who has lived in Vishram Society Tower A for decades, and the place holds memories for him, and his relationship with his neighbors seems positive and mutually supportive. When a developer proposes buying the building, all residents except Masterji agree. His stolid perseverance brings out animosity in his neighbors. How does one be true to oneself and live in community? What are our obligations to our neighbors? Adiga’s fine writing lays out the plot and develops multiple characters in ways that will captivate readers and present the range of complexity in human nature.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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