Friday, December 27, 2013

King and Maxwell

Preposterous. Readers who like character-based thrillers are those most likely to enjoy reading David Baldacci’s novel, King and Maxwell, the latest in a series featuring former Secret Service agents Sean King and Michelle Maxwell who now work together as private investigators. While I’ve read the earlier novels in this series, and find the characters familiar and interesting, they remain for me underdeveloped and not very complex. In the latest novel, Baldacci has outdone himself with a preposterous plot from the first chapter until the end. The actions of major and minor characters required far more suspension of disbelief than I was willing to offer. I kept reading because I began to find the whole plot amusing, and looked forward to the heroic actions that would lead to resolution of a ludicrous case. For light entertainment, this novel works, especially for those who don’t want to be thinking while they are reading. Relax, sit back, and enjoy the fast-paced action while not reflecting on how implausible all this is. Rating: Three-star (It’s ok) Click here to purchase King and Maxwell from

The Two Hotel Francforts

Stress. David Leavitt sets his novel, The Two Hotel Francforts, in Lisbon in the summer of 1940. Refugees have flocked to Lisbon in the hope of sailing away from the war. Levitt captures the anxiety and stress of this time and place through the relationships that develop between two couples who meet by chance. As befits a time of stress, unusual and unexpected events occur. Leavitt presents these lives and the decisions of each character in ways that never seemed to reduce tension. I finished the novel feeling unsatisfied. I never quite understood these characters. I recommend browsing a sample before you commit to reading the whole novel. Rating: Three-star (It’s ok) Click here to purchase The Two Hotel Francforts from

Bobcat and Other Stories

Dinner. I fed myself with one story every other day from a collection of seven by Rebecca Lee titled, Bobcat and Other Stories. I found that this approach allowed me to savor each one, and not have them run together in my mind. Some of the stories are set at dinner parties, and contain plenty of wit and finely crafted dialogue. Lee structures her stories with great care, and provides just enough description and character development to make each story complete. Any reader who enjoys short stories will find one or more in this collection that will bring great reading pleasure. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Bobcat from

A Possible Life: A Novel in Five Parts

Connection. Thanks to the subtitle of Sebastian Faulks’ novel, A Possible Life: A Novel in Five Parts, something in the back of my mind kept wondering while I read the novel what might connect the parts. Each part describes a life at a particular time and place. Faulks tells each story with care and precision, focusing close attention on the ways in which the characters achieve a level of understanding about themselves and others. That human connection crosses all time periods and defines us all. Loss, pain, love, everything, takes place in the context of relationship. Those readers who love novels that hold up our human condition for examination are most likely to love this one. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase A Possible Life from

Critical Mass

Injustice. One of the reading pleasures that I get when I open the latest novel in a series I’ve read for years is that sense of familiarity, as if I’ve been reunited with old friends. The latest V.I. Warshawski novel by Sara Paretsky is titled, Critical Mass, and in this outing, Paretsky leads Vic and readers back and forth between modern and past Chicago into World War II and current Vienna, the development of atomic weapons in Vienna and Chicago, and the secrets of a family that built a business from a creative scientific breakthrough. Fans will enjoy as I did, the broad cast of familiar characters, as well as some interesting new ones. The plot is complex enough to satisfy mystery readers, and engaging enough to retain interest for the complete novel of just under 500 pages. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Critical Mass from

The Mayan Secrets

Codex. The next stop for world adventurers Sam and Remi Fargo is Central America in Clive Cussler’s latest book in this series titled, The Mayan Secrets. The Fargos find an ancient Mayan codex in Mexico, and that leads them on an exciting adventure. The usual formulaic elements are present: Sam and Remi are skilled and heroic; the villains are worthy adversaries, and most readers will finish the novel feeling well entertained. There’s some satisfaction from reading a formulaic novel, and that’s the kind of comfort this novel delivers. Rating: Three-star (It’s ok) Click here to purchase The Mayan Secrets from

Archangels: The Rise of the Jesuits

Ingredients. Janet Tavakoli’s debut novel, Archangels: Rise of the Jesuits, contains many of the ingredients for a successful thriller. For me, those ingredients weren’t always harmonious. Tavakoli’s previous books have all been non-fiction and in the financial sector. The parts of her novel that relate to money seemed spot on. Her knowledge of the Vatican provided another successful ingredient for this novel. Character development, plot and dialogue fell a little flat for me. For a thriller, I was willing to overlook those distractions, and read through to the end, finding some entertainment, but not enough to highly recommend this book to others. Rating: Three-star (It’s ok) Click here to purchase Archangels from

A Marker to Measure Drift

Hunger. Alexander Maksik writes so well that I felt in my gut the hunger being experienced by protagonist Jacqueline, a Liberian refugee in his novel, A Marker to Measure Drift. Her trauma, PTSD and suffering permeate the novel. Having escaped Liberia, she is trying to eke out enough of a living to feed herself in a resort setting in Greece. Maksik contrasts wealth and poverty with this setup, and uses beautiful prose to reveal deep and enduring suffering. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase A Marker to Measure Drift from

This Will Be Difficult to Explain: And Other Stories

Pacing. I parceled out the nine stories in the collection from Johanna Skibsrud titled, This Will Be Difficult to Explain: And Other Stories. Over the course of a year, I read each story twice, spacing them out by reading only one in a given month. I found something to like in each story, but had to work harder than I’d like to appreciate her talent. I selected this book because it won the Giller prize. Once again, I found myself being unable to discover what led the judges to select this book. Readers should sample her prose before purchasing this book. Rating: Three-star (It’s ok) Click here to purchase This Will Be Difficult to Explain from

Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls

Stale. I finished reading the latest collection of essays by David Sedaris and had a strange feeling: I may be growing weary of this talented and funny writer. I laughed often enough during Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls, and I admired his trenchant observations. When I reflected on what I had read, I realized that so much of it had become familiar that it was no longer fresh to me. I’m still likely to read his next essays individually and as collected, but I will be even more alert to the ways in which my expectations of him have grown, but much of his writing has remained the same. Rating: Three-star (It’s ok) Click here to purchase Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls from

Thursday, December 12, 2013

This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage

Essays. I had read some of the 22 essays in Ann Patchett’s collection, This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage, when they were originally published in various periodicals. It was only after reading them all again in the context of this collection that I realized how much self-disclosure Patchett has presented to her loyal readers. This prolific writer excels at both fiction and nonfiction, and this volume highlights how fine her prose is in whichever form she chooses. Any reader looking to sample very fine writing that celebrates hard work and the joy of living will find much to enjoy from these pages. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage from


Predators. Fans of noir crime fiction are those readers most likely to enjoy Ken Bruen’s novel, Purgatory, the tenth of his books to feature protagonist Jack Taylor. Galway has two predators with whom Taylor needs to engage. There’s a serial killer taunting Jack as that person delivers vigilante justice to individuals the system failed to punish for misdeeds. Then there’s Reardon, an expat American billionaire buying up all the Galway depressed property he can acquire. Bruen’s great selection of language provides a lot of reading pleasure. The Oscar Wilde motif was a special gift to readers. Taylor is a complex character, developed well over the course of many novels, but first-time readers can savor his complexity when reading this novel on its own. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Purgatory from

The Tooth Tattoo

Music. The crime novels by Peter Lovesey featuring the head of Bath’s Criminal Investigation Division, Peter Diamond, are packed with wit, great characters and engaging plots. Readers who enjoy mysteries should consider Lovesey’s latest novel titled, The Tooth Tattoo. A world-renowned classical music quartet provides fascinating characters and an interesting plot, along with a challenge for Diamond. I was thoroughly entertained by Lovesey’s pacing and found myself engaged in trying to piece together a solution from carefully placed clues. It was almost as if I were trying to master a complicated musical composition. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Tooth Tattoo from

Heretics and Heroes: How Renaissance Artists and Reformation Priests Created Our World

Foundation. Thomas Cahill’s Hinges of History series offers general readers a quick way to explore a pivotal era in the past and see the ways in which what happened then helped form our present society. The latest installment, Heretics and Heroes, picks up where the prior book, Mysteries of the Middle Ages, left off. Cahill draws readers into the Renaissance and the Reformation. The Borgias, Martin Luther, Michelangelo and Botticelli are all part of what Cahill presents. Readers who don’t usually like history will find Cahill’s prose delightful. Serious readers of history will be distracted by how simple Cahill makes the past seem, and will not always agree with Cahill’s point of view. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Heretics and Heroes from


Revenge. I almost put aside Pierre Lemaitre’s novel, Alex, because I found too many of the images disturbing. I reverted from nighttime to daytime reading, and all was a bit better. Readers who like crime fiction with complex and twisting plots are those most likely to enjoy this novel. Two narrators present the story: Alex, whom we meet as she is kidnapped and tortured; and Commandant Camille Verhoeven, a widower who avoids kidnapping cases because of what happened to his wife. Lemaitre unfolds the plot through these voices, and rewards readers with unexpected twists. Revenge is a complicated subject, and in Lemaitre’s capable hands, it is expertly explored. Once I got over the gruesome details, I was entertained by the complicated plot and well-drawn characters. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Alex from

Dick Francis's Refusal

Bully. Felix Francis reprises retired jockey Sid Halley from earlier Dick Francis novels and proceeds to create a crime novel titled, Dick Francis’s Refusal. A violent villain has been scheming successfully to throw horse races by multiple means of extortion. After Sid Halley refuses to cooperate with this bully, Sid’s family is placed in jeopardy, along with his own reputation no matter what decisions he makes. Francis plods along with this plot and leaves readers with a few cliffhangers. Readers who like character based crime novels are those most likely to enjoy this one, as well as those long time Francis fans who may have mixed feelings about the updated Sid Halley. I read this novel quickly and found it to be mildly entertaining. Rating: Three-star (It’s ok) Click here to purchase Dick Francis’s Refusal from

A Prayer Journal

Longing. Even casual readers of Flannery O’Connor’s fiction catch on quickly that her Catholic faith was never far away from her writing. Any reader can now see for oneself O’Connor’s longing for God, as expressed in her recently published work titled, A Prayer Journal. Inside both in typed form and manuscript are the prayers of O’Connor from 1947 and 1948 when she was a student at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. While I felt like I was invading her privacy by reading this journal, I found her prayers full of the same liveliness as her fiction. Any reader interested in either O’Connor or prayer will find something to like in this short book. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase A Prayer Journal from

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

Humanity. Prepare yourself to be disoriented if you decide to read Anthony Marra’s finely written debut novel, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. The beginning of each chapter provides an excellent orientation in time by highlighting the year during which a chapter’s narrative took place. The overall setting is Chechnya during war. Each chapter reveals something new about the characters and their struggles. Marra captures the horrors and injustice of war, while revealing the ways in which our humanity can survive and thrive. I found myself reading this novel quickly, trying to pay attention to time periods so I could piece things together. Marra’s fine prose redeems the structure of the novel, and many critics have considered this among the best books of the year. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase A Constellation of Vital Phenomena from

The Explanation for Everything

Belief. Fiction often reminds us that people behave in unexpected ways that often seem irrational to others. In her novel, The Explanation for Everything, Lauren Grodstein riffs on the theme of belief in God. Protagonist Andy Waite teaches college biology and is looking for a grant to study the effect of alcohol on the brains of rats. He’s grieving the accidental death of his wife, and struggling to be a better parent. He teaches a course titled “There Is No God,” which has been Andy’s view. Grodstein maintains distance from the subject of belief, siding neither with believers nor with atheists. She presents all characters with flaws and poor behavior. While I felt a stretch in how some characters changed to or away from belief quite quickly, I found the characters interesting and her writing engaging. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Explanation for Everything from

Nine Inches

Suburbia. Tom Perrotta focuses a lens on ordinary suburban life in the ten stories of his collection titled after one of them, Nine Inches. Humor and sadness alternate in these stories, keeping readers interested and involved in these brief glimpses into the way so many of us live today. Several of the stories are in school settings and will resonate for teachers and students alike. Ordinary lives can tend toward what seem like ordinary problems, and Perrotta uses great skill to add just the right twists of disappointment and hope. Readers who like short fiction are those most likely to enjoy this collection. I thoroughly enjoyed eight of the stories, and the two lukewarm contributions were forgotten quickly. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Nine Inches from