Friday, July 26, 2013

The Son

Texas. There’s more than enough summer left for readers to savor one of those big satisfying novels that involve lots of characters over many decades. Philipp Meyer’s novel, The Son, is as big as Texas itself and covers pioneers, Indians, Mexicans, oil barons, ranchers and enough plot and descriptive language to bring every person, place and time period to life. Meyer moves forward and backward in time, and that added to my enjoyment of the novel. He mines the richness of close family relationships and the tensions that exist in all families. He uses the history of the setting to present life as it was lived. Just about every dimension of human behavior, from the very worst to the very best, are covered in the novel, and even after almost six hundred pages, I was hungry for more while I was sated with all I read. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase The Son from

Clean: Overcoming Addiction and Ending America's Greatest Tragedy

Pragmatic. David Sheff learned what he knows about the treatment of addiction the hard way: through the agony of his son’s addiction to heroin and the many failed treatments the family endured. In his book, Clean: Overcoming Addiction and Ending America’s Greatest Tragedy, Sheff explores what seems to work and what doesn’t based on evidence. He makes clear recommendations on what to do. He indicts those programs that are not based on science and on what actually works. Any reader with an interest in addiction or mental illness will find something interesting and useful in this book. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Clean from

The Intercept

Deception. Fans of thriller novels will find a lot to enjoy in Dick Wolf’s debut novel, The Intercept. While a first-time novelist, Wolf is a longtime storyteller, having created the Law and Order series. In this novel, Wolf explores a clever and deceptive terrorism plot set in New York City. The protagonist is Jeremy Fisk, a NYPD detective in the intelligence division. His skills are sorely tested by a plot that twists and turns in his favor and against him. His instincts and persistence provide great reading entertainment. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Intercept from

Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work

Process. Does anyone really need a how-to book on making decisions? Since I enjoyed at least one previous book by brothers Chip and Dan Heath, I picked up their latest titled, Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work. They take some of the latest results of cognitive research and psychology and present a process for making better decisions. Their four-part WRAP process reeks of common sense: Widen your options; Reality test your assumptions; Attain some distance and Prepare to be wrong. If most of us used this kind of common sense, chances are we’ll make better decisions. The prose in this book is always lively, and the examples interesting and entertaining. You may not think you need a how-to book on making decisions, but after reading it, you might internalize an idea or two that will lead to better decisions. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Decisive from

A Map of Tulsa

Geography. I was engaged and entertained by Benjamin Lytal’s debut novel, A Map of Tulsa. The friendship between Jim Praley and Adrienne Booker provides the backdrop for this coming of age story. Lytal addresses loss and grief in the novel in ways that seemed fresh and familiar at the same time. While I have never been to Tulsa, the geography of that place became so detailed and specific it was as if the place were another character in the novel. Readers who enjoy coming of age stories and are willing to take a chance on a debut novel are those most likely to enjoy this well-crafted work. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase A Map of Tulsa from

The River Swimmer

Mortality. I thoroughly enjoyed the two novellas in Jim Harrison’s latest book, The River Swimmer. Without a wasted or discordant word, Harrison presents readers with fully developed characters, young and old, who are totally connected to the joys and limitations of our brief lifetimes. The novella can be a difficult form of fiction: sometimes leaving a reader wanting more of a story, and other times not having adequate plot action to flesh out a character in ways that satisfy readers. Harrison nails this genre with great skill. I loved his wit and his wisdom in holding a mirror to our human mortality. Any reader who enjoys great writing will find something to like in these novellas. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase The River Swimmer from

Detroit: An American Autopsy

Personal. Journalist Charlie LeDuff has written a great book about his hometown and its woes titled, Detroit: An American Autopsy. The misery and sadness of the people still living in the city of Detroit provide a backdrop for this cautionary tale. Our city may be next. LeDuff candidly lays out the experience of his own family alongside a large cast of characters. The blending of the personal with the distance of a reporter make for a fine combination in a book that riveted my attention from beginning to end. Readers who care about any city and about quality of life in America will find this book heartbreaking and engaging. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Detroit An American Autopsy from

Claire DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway

Persistence. I often enjoy reading detective fiction because of a well-developed complex protagonist. I never quite warmed up to detective Claire DeWitt when I read Sara Gran’s second novel to feature this character titled, Claire DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway. DeWitt is very persistent in this story set in the San Francisco area. Her former boyfriend, Paul, has been murdered, and she doggedly pursues every possible lead as she gets to the bottom of what happened. Interspersed with the current plot is a parallel story from Claire’s teenage years. Along the way, Claire consumes a lot of cocaine, which can’t be great for what Poirot calls the “little gray cells.” While I’ve enjoyed plenty of novels with troubled protagonists, for some reason or another, Claire DeWitt never quite came to life for me as a complete character. I persisted to the end of this novel, but probably won’t go back to read the debut, not am I likely to read the next one in the series. Rating: Three-star (It’s ok) Click here to purchase Claire DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway from

On the Floor

Independence. Aifric Campbell presents readers with a very interesting and complex female protagonist, Geri Molloy, in a novel titled, On the Floor. Molloy works in London for an investment bank, and the action of the novel is set in 1991 before the invasion of Kuwait. She’s a moneymaker for the firm because a reclusive Hong Kong hedge fund manager chose her as the person with whom he demanded to do business with at that investment bank. Molloy is drinking too much, sleeping too little, and grieving the loss of a relationship. She excels at math and in preserving her independence. At age twenty eight, she needs to come to grips with what is important in life. Readers who enjoy coming of age stories, strong female protagonists, and financial services are those most likely to enjoy reading this fine novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase On the Floor from

You Were Never in Chicago

Affection. The affection and love that Chicago Sun Times columnist Neil Steinberg has for his adopted city spark from every page of his book, You Were Never in Chicago. With Steinberg as an enthusiastic guide, readers travel around both familiar and unfamiliar parts of Chicago. Steinberg’s fine writing and his clarity in description of people and places make the city come to life for those who live here, those who have never been, and those who have experienced a small slice of this interesting place. Having lived on the edge of the city for a similar three decades as Steinberg, I enjoyed the many ways in which he celebrated places I love, and introduced me to people and places I’ve never been. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase You Were Never in Chicago from

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Ordinary Grace

Brokenness. Any reader looking for a reaffirmation of the basic goodness in humanity will enjoy reading William Kent Kruger’s finely written novel, Ordinary Grace. Narrated by Frank Drum at age 53, the action in the novel takes place during the summer of 1961 in the small town of New Bremen, Minnesota, when Frank was 13. Every member of the Drum family and each character in the novel suffers from some form of brokenness. What Kruger develops so well in these characters and in the plot is the transformation from the broken part of our human condition toward caring, love and understanding. Readers on any spiritual journey will find familiar themes in this novel. I finished this novel and felt good about myself, my community, and all of humanity. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase Ordinary Grace from

The AIG Story

Robbed. Some readers will know a lot about what led to the bailout of AIG, and others may not know much. Some readers know that former New York Attorney General Elliot Spitzer focused his prosecutorial attention on former AIG Chairman and CEO Hank Greenberg. All readers should be aware that a new book by Greenberg and Lawrence R. Cunningham titled The AIG Story lays out Greenberg’s version of what happened. In summary: Greenberg says he was robbed of his job and of a considerable piece of his fortune. This is a great book for any reader who likes business stories and the practice of management. Greenberg built AIG into a huge and profitable company. He was forced out of that job because of political pressure. Under his successor, the company came to the brink of failure and required a huge government bailout. We may never learn the complete story, but this version of events is interesting and entertaining. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The AIG Story from

The Buy Side: A Wall Street Trader's Tale of Spectacular Excess

Addiction. Readers who like memoirs of addiction and recovery are those most likely to enjoy Turney Duff’s The Buy Side: A Wall Street Trader’s Tale of Spectacular Excess. Those readers who expect any insight into Wall Street life should look elsewhere. In many respects, this is a generic story of addiction with Wall Street as a backdrop to a story of personal bad choices and the consequences of those choices. Duff landed a job on Wall Street and found a sweet spot in his skills at networking and partying. Drinking and drugs led to full addiction and bad outcomes for Turney and his family. I found this to be a sad story, but one that many other authors have told. Duff writes well, and if you enjoy reading about the pain and misfortune of others, this is the book for you. Rating: Three-star (It’s ok) Click here to purchase The Buy Side from

The King's Deception

Patrimony. Steve Berry continues his successful formula with a new novel titled, The King’s Deception. Protagonist Cotton Malone and his son, Gary, are caught in a scheme that involves both a modern and a historical controversy. At the end of each novel, Berry separates fact from fiction, as a way to inform readers. His alternative history is always imaginative, in this case a Tudor period deception. The theme of patrimony runs through the novel, both in Tudor times and in Malone’s relationship with Gary. Readers who like fast-paced action novels, and who can tolerate leaps of imagination that deviate from scholarly historical accounts, are those most likely to enjoy this novel. I was entertained by the action and amused by Berry’s alternative history. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The King’s Deception from

Bunker Hill: A City, a Seige, a Revolution

Warren. I love to read history written by contemporary authors. I find that they are often entertaining to a general reader like me, and I always learn something new. The four hundred pages of Nathaniel Philbrick’s book, Bunker Hill: A City, a Siege, a Revolution, present a lively, comprehensive and entertaining account of this critical battle. I went into the book with plenty of knowledge about the battle and the leadership of John Adams and John Hancock during this time period. I learned (or re-learned) the important role of Doctor Joseph Warren from Philbrick’s account, and came to appreciate the loss that his death in that battle meant for Boston. Any reader who enjoys a well-written history will find something to like in this book. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Bunker Hill from

Monday, July 8, 2013

The Engagements

Rings. Readers looking for a sprawling novel to escape into this summer are not likely to be disappointed by J. Courtney Sullivan’s The Engagements. She creates an ensemble of characters with interesting connections, and links them together in interesting ways through diamond engagement rings. She weaves their narratives forward and backward, allowing readers to settle into their lives before moving along. We leave one couple at a reasonable break point, and when we return to them, it is as if we never left. Sullivan covers many decades in presenting this story, and every relationship comes alive through finely written prose. I was swept away into the lives Sullivan presents, and I found myself thoroughly entertained by the time I spent with these interesting characters. I think that any book club that selects this novel will engage in lively conversation, about the characters and about our own relationships and wedding rings. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase The Engagements from

The City of Devi

Desire. Manil Suri alternates narrators of his novel, The City of Devi, to present different perspectives on the plot. The threat of nuclear annihilation between India and Pakistan provides a backdrop for the tension in the novel. Sarita is searching for her missing husband, Karun. On her journey, she meets the other narrator, Jaz, who is also on a search. As readers learn more about this triangle of characters, their lives become vivid, their strong desires revealed, and the world in which they life laid bare. Suri’s writing is clever and provocative, packed with clear descriptive language and insight into human behavior. Readers who are intrigued should read a sample before plunging into this story. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The City of Devi from

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

Sisters. When I finished reading Karen Joy Fowler’s novel, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, I was reminded of something a friend called to my attention decades ago. She said that one of the most important questions we have to answer is that when we say “we,’ who do we mean? Fowler refers to “we” in a manner that may surprise readers. The family life of protagonist Rosemary Cooke fell apart starting at age five when her sister, Fern, was suddenly removed from the household. Rosemary didn’t know family life without Fern, and the loss was devastating for Rosemary and for her brother, Lowell. The surprising element of this novel is that Fern is a chimpanzee. Fowler injects both wit and sadness to this story, constantly reinforcing how closely related humans and chimps are, leading readers to suspend any disbelief about how a family could include a chimp in close family life. Her writing engaged me throughout the novel, and the question for all readers will likely be: “when you say ‘we’, who do you mean? After all, “we” are all creatures, aren’t we? Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves from

The Ocean at the End of the Lane

Guardian. Reading can take us to places that are both familiar and very different. In Neil Gaiman’s capable hands, readers of his novel, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, leap into a setting that blurs reality and appearance, and to a plot that’s wildly imaginative and close to anyone’s coming of age experience. The narrator returns at age forty to the home where magical things happened to him at age seven. We learn through his recollections of the way he was protected by some unusual neighbors who guarded him from danger. The pond at the end of the lane was somehow also an ocean, and the guardian was more than a neighbor. The mythic themes will delight close readers, and the well-told story will engage all readers in the joy of a sad and poignant tale. I read the novel quickly, and enjoyed in from beginning to end. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Ocean at the End of the Lane from


Earthquake. Twins possess a special bond that “singles” may not understand and appreciate. Curtis Sittenfeld explores that bond in her novel, Sisterland. Violet and Daisy grew up with heightened senses, a gift of being able to foresee future events in general or specific ways. Violet embraced her gift, while Daisy rejected it, even changing her name to Kate to erase part of her past. While the sisters head in different directions, their personal bonds remain strong. Vi predicts an earthquake for the St. Louis area where they live, and Kate senses the exact date. While that provides a gimmicky plot that I found overly quirky, I enjoyed this novel because of the ways in which Sittenfeld developed the complexity of these characters and the ways in which they behaved, both good and bad. I didn’t like Sittenfeld’s earlier novels as much as this one. There was something about the ways in which she explored the conflicts of love that I found entertaining and enjoyable. Readers with the patience to overlook some gimmicks are those most likely to enjoy this story of powerful relationships. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Sisterland from