Monday, August 27, 2012

Gone Girl

Match. Some couples are described as being a perfect match: made for each other. Gillian Flynn takes that notion to the extreme in her entertaining novel, Gone Girl. Wife Amy has gone missing on her fifth wedding anniversary to husband, Nick. Exposition in the novel alternates between Amy and Nick, and Flynn delighted me as she made these two characters totally unsympathetic to any reader. There are two sides to every relationship, and Flynn shows us the worst in both sides of this very toxic marriage. By the end of the novel, I was totally entertained, and satisfied that Nick and Amy are a perfect match. Readers who like offbeat, dark humor are those most likely to enjoy this novel. Rating: Three-star (Recommended) Click here to purchase Gone Girl from


Boats. John Banville continues his mystery series written under the pseudonym Benjamin Black with a new novel titled, Vengeance. Protagonist Garrett Quirke seemed less gloomy in this novel than in the prior ones, although the atmospherics of 1950s Dublin add plenty of darkness to this novel. Key plot action takes place on boats in this novel, and Banville’s writing skill carries readers through a moderately-paced novel, packed with great dialogue. He develops characters with skill exposing many layers of complexity, both for new characters, and those reprised from previous novels. Fans of great writing who also like a good mystery are those most likely to enjoy this novel. Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended) Click here to purchase Vengeance from

The Storm

Watery. I can’t believe that I read another Clive Cussler novel from the NUMA Files series. Kurt Austin and Joe Zavala narrowly escape death every hundred pages or so in The Storm, the latest in this series. The predicaments in which these characters find themselves become so implausible that readers like me laugh and cheer when they escape, as expected, from every peril. The formulaic structure of these novels provides readers with reliable entertainment featuring wicked villains with plots to control the Earth. In this novel, the villain wants to control the water temperature of the world’s oceans and auction off the weather outcomes to the nations with the highest bids for his services. For that last taste of summer escape reading, or on a Hurricane influenced flight delay, consider reading this outlandish novel. Rating: Two-star (Mildly Recommended) Click here to purchase The Storm from


Neighbors. Skeptics who think that there have been more than enough novels set in Manhattan should consider reading Karl Taro Greenfield’s take on this genre, his novel titled, Triburbia. Acute social observation in fiction works best when the audience is familiar with the species being described. The Tribeca neighborhood in which Greenfield lives seemed realistic enough be me, and the characters came across as authentic. The quirky presentation of a group of neighbors, linked by geography and the local elementary school, was often comic and frequently entertaining. None of the characters are sufficiently developed, and that’s probably perfect in the context of most neighborhoods: we know some things, but never everything. Fans of Manhattan and clever writing are those most likely to enjoy this book. Rating: Three-star (Recommended) Click here to purchase Triburbia from


Nurture. Fans of crime novels will be entertained by the grisly acts and diligent detection in Karin Slaughter’s novel, Criminal. Slaughter fans will enjoy the backstory of recurring protagonists Amanda Wagner and Will Trent as the novelist uses what happened in 1974 as an explanation of the present action. The result is two novels for the price of one. Trent’s anxiety that the genes inherited from his father might be too powerful of an evil force in his life becomes assuaged by the realization of how much his mentor nurtured him. It takes Slaughter over 400 pages to lay out all the plot threads from the past and present, and at times I found the level of exposition slowed down the novel too much for my taste. Readers who like character-driven crime novels are those most likely to enjoy this one. Rating: Three-star (Recommended) Click here to purchase Criminal from

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

How Should a Person Be?

Inquiry. The protagonist of Sheila Heti’s novel, How Should a Person Be?, seems to be genuinely searching for an answer to that question. This character, also named Sheila, has recently become divorced, and she is making lists and observing the behavior of others to try to find the answers she seeks. This quirky and odd novel presents email, transcripts of conversations and bits of humor that move things along in Sheila’s quest. One key insight: “He was just another man who wanted to teach me something.” Like other forms of contemporary art, there will be readers who love this novel, and those who just don’t get it. I think I got it, didn’t love it, but recommend it to readers who gravitate to young, modern authors. I suggest anyone considering this novel should read a sample first. If you don’t like the excerpt, chances are this is not a novel you’ll enjoy. Rating: Three-star (Recommended) Click here to purchase How Should a Person Be from

The Devil's Star

Motive. The Devil’s Star by Jo Nesbo provides readers who love mystery thrillers with two key elements: a complex plot and a complex well-developed protagonist. Detective Harry Hole’s alcoholism and nonconformity has put him at the brink of dismissal from the force. A serial murderer provides a reprieve for Harry, who never stops thinking. The multiple connections Hole makes, and the ways in which he never lets go of the case, provide great plot momentum. In this novel, Hole becomes fixed on the element of motive. I was captivated by the plot throughout the novel, and read this book quickly and with pleasure, despite spending time in the depths of evil that Nesbo plumbs through his villains. Rating: Three-star (Recommended) Click here to purchase The Devil’s Star from

Winter Journal

Unconventional. Once I started reading Paul Auster’s memoir, Winter Journal, I couldn’t stop. Many memoirs are formulaic chronological reflections on either the wonder or terror of the subject’s life. Auster follows an unconventional structure using a narrator speaking to the subject, Auster. While odd at first, it became the perfect device for a highly skilled writer to convey wisdom and perspective about his life. Perhaps this book resonated for me because I am just a few years younger than Auster. I found his treatment of his body throughout his life, and the importance of place through each of the twenty one places where he’s lived, to be important ways of conveying how we engage in the world. Any reader who appreciates first-rate writing, especially one who enjoys memoirs, is likely to enjoy this finely written memoir. Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended) Click here to purchase Winter Journal from


Sacrifice. Readers who are suffering withdrawal now that the London Olympic Games have concluded can reengage with Chris Cleave’s novel, Gold. Cleave presents five characters whose lives revolve around track cycling. Zoe and Kate have been competing against each other for years, and while their skills are comparable, their personalities are a study in contrast. Zoe is cold and Kate is warm. They are both coached by Tom, who faces conflict in how he brings out the best in each racer. Kate’s husband, Jack, is also a world class cyclist, and he and Kate juggle their time to care for Sophie, an eight year old who suffers from leukemia. This novel is a study in sacrifice, and Cleave tugs at every emotional thread he can to influence the feelings of readers. Like some Olympic events, I watched, this novel hit some marks and missed others. Despite ample backstory fill-ins, none of the characters were as fully developed as I would have liked. As a judge, I would have rated this novel off the podium. Readers who prefer emotional intensity in a novel are those most likely to enjoy this one. Rating: Three-star (Recommended) Click here to purchase Gold from

A Killing in the Hills

Unraveling. Mystery readers are likely to love three things about Julia Keller’s debut novel, A Killing in the Hills: well-developed characters; descriptive setting that comes alive through finely written prose; and the expectation that this will be the first in a series featuring protagonist Bell Elkins. In this novel, Elkins’ teenaged daughter, Carla, witnesses a triple homicide. Because of her role as county prosecutor, Bell has both a professional and personal stake in how the crime gets solved. Keller uses the backdrop of the West Virginia hills as a context for the ups and downs in this mother-daughter relationship, and to keep the tension of the story taut. Readers willing to give debut novels a shot should move this one toward the top of the list. Rating: Three-star (Recommended) Click here to purchase A Killing in the Hills from

Monday, August 6, 2012

The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson

Transition. The latest installment of Robert Caro’s massive biography of Lyndon Johnson is titled The Passage of Power. The time period covered in this book is from 1958 to 1964, with the key action centered on the transition of the presidency to Johnson upon John F. Kennedy’s assassination. In many respects, this book presents Johnson at his best and Caro at his best. Caro explores Johnson’s hesitation to run for President in 1960, and the desolation he felt when he became a powerless Vice President. The enmity between Johnson and Robert Kennedy provides a backdrop that also sets the stage for the next book on Johnson’s presidency. Caro describes with cogent insight the effective transition of presidential power, and the masterful ways in which Johnson behaved in the first days, weeks and months following 11/22/63. Any reader interested in American politics will enjoy this finely written biography. Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended) Click here to purchase The Passage of Power from

Bailout: An Inside Account of How Washington Abandoned Main Street While Rescuing Wall Street

Blunt. Neil Barofsky minces few words and seethes with anger about people and policies in his book, Bailout: An Inside Account of How Washington Abandoned Main Street While Rescuing Wall Street. Barofsky served as the special inspector general of the Troubled Asset Relief Program (SIGTARP) from December 2008 until March 2011. A former prosecutor, Barofsky irritated Washington insiders by the ways in which he pushed for holding Wall Street accountable. By his account, his mission was to protect the taxpayer, and his method was to do what he thought was right not to do things the easy way. One prominent target of Barofsky’s wrath is Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner. Readers who are interested in financial policy, especially the TARP program, are those most likely to enjoy this blunt appraisal of how the banks were saved and help for homeowners never got traction. Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended) Click here to purchase Bailout from

Monday Mornings

Lessons. Sanjay Gupta, the doctor who appears on CNN regularly, has written a medical novel about the lessons that come from morbidity and mortality conferences at medical facilities. Monday Mornings relates some case studies through poorly developed characters and a didactic writing style. I finished this novel wishing that he had written about real cases or made the characters of the novel more fully realized. Rating: Two-star (Mildly Recommended) Click here to purchase Monday Mornings from

I Married You for Happiness

Recollections. Lily Tuck’s novel, I Married You for Happiness, captures one element of grief: the quirky and unconnected ways in which we remember our relationship with a deceased loved one. Protagonist Nina sits beside her dead husband, Philip, holding his hand. She thinks back in disjointed ways about their life together, especially the joys they shared. I sat with Nina for the two hundred pages in this novel, and at times found myself thinking about the elements of a successful marriage. Mostly, I closed the book feeling glad I reached the last page. Rating: Two-star (Mildly Recommended) Click here to purchase I Married You for Happiness from

The Toaster Project: Or a Heroic Attempt to Build a Simple Electric Appliance from Scratch

Art. Two different audiences are likely to enjoy Thomas Thwaites’ clever book, The Toaster Project: people who think when they see an object that they could replicate it, and those whose projects seem to turn out like the toaster on the cover of this book. This entertaining book describes the process by which Thwaites builds a working toaster from scratch over the course of nine months, at a cost considerably higher than what we would pay for a unit that was mass produced. This is a funky and fun work of art that is like nothing else I’ve read. Rating: Three-star (Recommended) Click here to purchase The Toaster Project from

Seating Arrangements

Classy. Social satire can be tricky to pull off. Maggie Shipstead’s debut novel, Seating Arrangements, will delight those readers who appreciate when satire is well done. The multiple generations of WASPy characters that Shipstead creates are recognizable to any reader familiar with the preppy lifestyle of the Northeastern United States. Family members have gathered for a weekend wedding at their island home, and all the dysfunction starts at the beginning and endures to the end of the novel, providing hours of humorous entertainment. Rating: Three-star (Recommended) Click here to purchase Seating Arrangements from

Hotels, Hospitals, and Jails: A Memoir

Turmoil. Some memoirs present reflections about extraordinary lives. Others describe struggles and provide insight into how setbacks and obstacles can be overcome. Anthony Swofford’s latest memoir, Hotels, Hospitals, and Jails, tells readers about many of the recent bad choices he’s made, and how close he came to losing touch with what’s important. Much of the book involves his struggles with his father. His writing comes through as candid and blunt and with a critical introspection. Swofford’s earlier memoir, Jarhead, showcased his fine writing style. While the writing here is good, I became fatigued in reading so many pages about his narcissistic life and the turmoil he created for himself and others. He ends on an up note, but the journey there may be enjoyed only by those readers whose taste tends toward schadenfreude. Rating: Two-star (Mildly Recommended) Click here to purchase Hotels Hospitals and Jails from

A Hologram for the King

Globalization. The protagonist of Dave Eggers novel, A Hologram for the King, works for a global IT company, and he is in Saudi Arabia to pitch the company’s products and services to King Abdullah. Any salesperson or business executive who has made an important presentation to a key decision maker will empathize with much of what Alan Clay encounters. Eggers has created a great character in Clay, and the ways in which the trends in globalization are embodied in Clay himself make the humor and tragedy even sharper. Rating: Three-star (Recommended) Click here to purchase A Hologram for the King from

The Train of Small Mercies

Perspectives. David Rowell’s debut novel, The Train of Small Mercies, uses the funeral train of Robert Kennedy in 1968 as the backdrop for describing American life at that time. Rowell develops multiple perspectives of a half dozen characters to illuminate readers about ordinary lives that combine to form our society. We are the combination of our stories, both individual and shared, and Rowell’s fine writing kept me absorbed in this novel from beginning to end. Rating: Three-star (Recommended) Click here to purchase The Train of Small Mercies from

The Inspector and Silence

Vacation. Mystery readers looking for an entertaining novel that’s set in a hot summer are likely to enjoy The Inspector and Silence by the Swedish writer Hakan Nesser. Chief Inspector Van Veeteren has scheduled a vacation in a few weeks’ time, and agrees to take on an out-of-town case to kill some time until he can get away. A young girl has been murdered near a holiday camp, and Van Veeteren faces the silence of cult members in whose program the girl was participating until her death. Fans of character-driven mysteries are those most likely to enjoy this book. Rating: Three-star (Recommended) Click here to purchase The Inspector and Silence from