Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk

Culture. Ben Fountain’s debut novel, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, packs a wallop on many levels. Protagonist Lynn and members of his Bravo company squad were in a deadly firefight in Iraq. Lynn and others are celebrated as heroes, including at Texas Stadium on Thanksgiving, where they are recognized as part of selling the war to America’s citizens. After the game, they are being redeployed. Fountain presents our culture with great skill in this finely written novel. The characters are richly developed, and the mirror Fountain holds up to our society and culture will leave all readers thinking about his perspective and insight. Readers who appreciate biting satire and fine writing are those most likely to enjoy this book. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk from amazon.com.

A World on Fire: Britain's Crucial Role in the American Civil War

Perspective. Thanks to the recommendation of a friend, I spent many weeks enjoying the 800+ pages of Amanda Foreman’s fine history, A World on Fire: Britain's Crucial Role in the American Civil War. I knew a little about England’s involvement before reading this book, but my knowledge became greatly enhanced and enriched thanks to the perspective that Foreman brings to the subject. Her thorough research provided the basis for a writing style that draws readers into the subject. The complicated machinations in England are unraveled with precision by Foreman. Readers who love history are those most likely to enjoy reading this finely written book. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase A World on Fire from amazon.com.

The Middlesteins

Taut. Jami Attenberg’s novel, The Middlesteins, will appeal to readers like me who can explore dysfunction in a family and find humor, compassion and empathy. Food takes center stage in this novel, as it has in the relationship between protagonists Edie and Richard Middlestein. Attenberg draws a taut line in the novel as she presents troubled and sad characters who create much of their own distress. Too extreme and the characters would be unbelievable. I thought Attenberg used a light touch to make these characters fully human and recognizable to all readers. This novel would provide engaging conversation for book groups, especially about obsessions, self-destructive behavior, and the struggles of married life. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Middlesteins from amazon.com.

The Crowded Grave

Feast. Successful character-driven crime fiction requires an appealing protagonist, and Martin Walker has created one in the Chief of Police of St. Denis in the Dordogne, Bruno Courrèges. The fourth novel in this series, The Crowded Grave, presents the central character and the setting in all its richness. The mystery is interesting, the food and drink appealing, and the cast of characters entertaining. This novel is a feast for those readers who like a good mystery, a well-described setting, and characters that are believable. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Crowded Grave from amazon.com.

1775: A Good Year for Revolution

Cousins. The current trend in hefty books about periods in history is to title the book with a specific year. Kevin Phillips has joined that trend with his book 1775: A Good Year for Revolution. He uses what he calls a “long year” from late 1774 to early 1776 to show that this was the real period of revolution, despite our celebration of 1776 as the beginning of the American Revolution. Phillips’ interest in the English Civil Warsfrom his book, The Cousins Wars, carries forward in the latest book as he describes how the divisions in England crossed the Atlantic to the New World. In some respects, the American Revolution was a civil war. This book will appeal to those history buffs who are patient with lengthy exposition and enjoy an abundance of tidbits and details. I enjoyed reading it, and learned a thing or two about the context of events I thought I already knew. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase 1775 from amazon.com.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Frances and Bernard

Letters. I opened Carlene Bauer’s short novel, Frances and Bernard, not sure whether the form would work. Bauer structured the novel as an exchange of letters mostly between Frances Reardon and Bernard Eliot, writers who met at an artist’s colony in the late 1950s. Their friendship intensifies through these finely written letters, and Bauer’s writing shines for any reader who enjoys fine writing. Both protagonists are complex characters and the ways in which Bauer reveals their complexity made me love reading this novel. The novel is an engaging story of friendship, art, mental illness, faith and love. This is the finest debut novel that I’ve read in many years. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase Frances and Bernard from amazon.com.


Dog. Robert Crais leaves behind the familiar characters from his previous novel, and offers readers a four-legged protagonist in his latest novel, Suspect. Maggie is a German shepherd who suffers from PTSD following three tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and the death of her handler from an IED explosion. Maggie’s new pack leader is LAPD officer Scott James who also suffers from PTSD following the death of his partner and his own injuries. Crais engages readers quickly in the story of Maggie and Scott, and along the way explores all levels of “suspect.” Maggie is a good dog, and Scott is a good guy, and most readers will come away from this story feeling pretty good. I know I did. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Suspect from amazon.com.

Just Plain Dick: Richard Nixon's Checkers Speech and the "Rocking, Socking" Election of 1952

Surface. Richard Nixon was a fascinating and complex person, and reading about him can be interesting whether you supported his politics or not. Kevin Mattson’s book, Just Plain Dick: Richard Nixon's Checkers Speech and the "Rocking, Socking" Election of 1952, presents a glimpse into one pivotal time period in Nixon’s life, and through that key time, allows readers to think about Nixon in what might be new ways. I’ve read a lot about Nixon, and found this short book to skim the surface and not quite delve into the complexity of the character and personality. Most general readers will find this book quick to read and for those less familiar with the Checkers speech and the campaign of 1952, there’s a cogent presentation of this time and selected key events. Rating: Three-star (It’s ok) Click here to purchase Just Plain Dick from amazon.com.

Orders from Berlin

Confidence. Readers who like character-driven suspense novels are those most likely to enjoy Simon Tolkien’s Orders from Berlin. This is Tolkien’s third novel to feature Detective Inspector William Trave, and in this outing, Trave’s skills are put to the test as he places himself at professional risk to get to the bottom of the case. Set in 1940s England, the story involves a plot to kill Churchill, directed from Berlin. MI6 is in the middle of something and Chief Inspector Quaid is confident about a guilty suspect. The real confidence should be placed in Trave’s talent. The suspense makes for rapid reading, although the mystery gets revealed earlier than will satisfy some readers. I enjoyed the novel and ended the book quite satisfied. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Orders from Berlin from amazon.com.

The Casual Vacancy

Cruelty. The gloomy town inhabited by the troubled characters in J.K. Rowling’s novel, The Casual Vacancy, presents the worst possible components of community. People here are cruel to each other, neglect their needs and live close to one another but in separate worlds. The most appealing character in the novel dies in the first few pages. I slogged through all 500 pages immersed in the sadness of the many lives Rowling presents to readers. Some of the teens are more mature than the adults, and all characters have something to hide or are dealing with one struggle or another. I found that I finished the novel feeling depressed and saddened and concluded that the time I spent reading it could have been spent in better ways. Rating: Two-star (I don’t like it) Click here to purchase The Casual Vacancy from amazon.com.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Living With Honor: A Memoir

Humility. Whether you know the story of Sal Giunta’s military service or not, you’re likely to be inspired by his memoir, Living with Honor. Sal is the first living recipient of the Medal of Honor since the end of the Vietnam War. In this finely written memoir, Sal tells the story of his life and service with modesty and humility. I think he uses “team” or “teamwork” far more often that references to his own actions. He humbly says that he did what any soldier would have done in the same situation. Read this memoir and then buy more copies for others. Rating: Five-star (I loved it) Click here to purchase Living with Honor from amazon.com.

Dear Life

Expert. Any reader who likes short stories will be rewarded with examples of the very best of this genre in a new collection from Alice Munro titled, Dear Life. Set in Ontario, Canada, each story reveals something essential about human behavior and the joy and heartbreak of life. The efficiency of this genre requires precision in language selection, and Munro is an expert. I savored and enjoyed each of the stories in this collection. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Dear Life from amazon.com.

The Fifth Assassin

Pacing. Brad Meltzer reprises The Culper Ring from previous novels for his latest book, The Fifth Assassin. First-time Meltzer readers are likely to be confused and frustrated, but fans of the series can use the earlier novels as a solid foundation for understanding the characters and motivation in the new novel. I found his pacing to be rapid, and my interest remained engaged and focused through 432 pages. Meltzer left enough uncovered for another installment. Readers who are willing to suspend disbelief for this imaginative plot are rewarded by a fast moving thriller. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Fifth Assassin from amazon.com.

The Lawgiver

Funny. I never expected Herman Wouk to write a funny novel. I’ve read his lengthy novels and enjoyed them, so when I saw this new short novel, The Lawgiver, I was intrigued. Wouk uses himself and his wife as characters and the plot involves writing a novel and screenplay about Moses. Wouk pokes fun at Hollywood, himself, and Moses. Peppering the text with email transcripts added to my reading pleasure. For a lighthearted reading experience that will bring smiles and laughs to most readers, consider reading this funny novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Lawgiver from amazon.com.

Wild Thing

Quirky. I was entertained by Josh Bazell’s debut novel, Beat the Reaper, so I expected to enjoy his second novel, Wild Thing. Instead, I found more to dislike than enjoy in this novel. Plot, characters and structure tended to be distracting rather than anything else. While I laughed at times, the humor was many notches below the debut novel. Read a sample before you consider reading the entire novel. Rating: Two-star (I didn’t like it) Click here to purchase Wild Thing from amazon.com.

Monday, February 4, 2013

The End of Men: And The Rise of Women

Meandering. Having read Hanna Rosin’s essay in the Atlantic on this subject, I wondered how much more would be in her book, The End of Men: And The Rise of Women. Answer: not a whole lot. I had the impression that Rosin padded the book with just enough anecdotes and interviews to fill 300 pages. Her core observation is supported by the data: women are making economic progress and men are experiencing economic decline. In an attempt to project what this may mean for our society, Rosin meanders from chapter to chapter making half-hearted arguments or half-baked positions that never coalesce to a coherent whole. I found the book interesting, her prose enjoyable, but the facts came across as selective and her premises speculative. Some journalists excel in the short form, and Rosin does that expertly. For the subject matter of this book, a better choice would be something from the expert hands of a skilled and disciplined social scientist. Rating: Three-star (It’s ok) Click here to purchase The End of Men from amazon.com.

Unusual Uses for Olive Oil: A Professor Dr von Igelfeld Entertainment Novel

Dogmatic. Professor Dr Moritz-Maria von Igelfeld of the Institute of Romance Philology is not one of my favorite characters in the fiction of Alexander McCall Smith. That said, I laughed a lot when I read the latest novel in this series, Unusual Uses for Olive Oil. The clueless professor creates his own predicaments and problems, and most of them will make readers smile or laugh. The professor’s dogmatism blinds him to the wider reality in which most of us live. Readers who like quirky humor are those most likely to enjoy this novel. Consider reading a sample before you commit to reading the whole book. Rating: Three-star (It’s ok) Click here to purchase Unusual Uses for Olive Oil from amazon.com.

The Forgotten

Power. Readers who like thrillers featuring the heroic competence of a righteous protagonist are those most likely to enjoy David Baldacci’s The Forgotten. John Puller is an Army special investigator and the son of a retired and ailing general. The thrill is what happens when Puller goes to Florida at his father’s assignment on a personal mission: to see what is troubling the general’s sister. Puller finds his aunt dead, and uses all his skills and talents to solve the crime. Baldacci keeps the action moving quickly, develops allies and villains with dispatch, and allows Puller to do that he does best. Baldacci kept me interested in this story from beginning to end. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Forgotten from amazon.com.

The Midwife's Tale

Lively. I zipped through Sam Thomas’ debut novel, The Midwife’s Tale, faster than my usual quick reading pace. Thomas drew me in immediately with rapid plot momentum. Historical fiction can become plodding at times, but this novel set during the English civil wars, was lively from beginning to end. Any male novelist, especially in a debut, can create female characters who come across as incomplete, or less fully realized. Protagonist Lady Bridget Hodgson, is the midwife from the title, and Thomas creates her as an interesting, complex, and fully formed character. Supporting characters are also well developed, and the setting, the siege of York, allows readers to appreciate this history: a time of people with divided political loyalties living side by side. Readers who like historical fiction and those willing to give a try to first time novelists are those most likely to enjoy this book. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Midwife’s Tale from amazon.com.

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie

Character. Readers who are comfortable with fiction that weaves together episodes are those most likely to enjoy the debut novel from Ayana Mathis titled, The Twelve Tribes of Hattie. Mathis uses the lives of protagonist Hattie and her children to describe the sweep of the Great Migration. Set mostly in Georgia and Philadelphia, between the 1920s and 1980s, Mathis presents key events in the lives of Hattie and her children to reveal this family across generations. Their struggles and joys engaged me from beginning to end. Mathis could have added hundreds of pages to present these lives in full. Instead, she used great efficiency to develop these characters so well in a finely written 250 page novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Twelve Tribes of Hattie from amazon.com.