Monday, July 28, 2014

Hearts of Sand

Angles. I let Jane Haddam’s latest Gregor Demarkian novel titled, Hearts of Sand, sit on the shelf for months after its release. I wanted to read it in the summer, and I did that with great pleasure recently. Demarkian agrees to consult on a murder case in the small and wealthy Connecticut town of Alwych. Haddam allows the clues to unfold at a moderate pace as Gregor works all the angles to figure things out. There’s another murder that increases the pace, and without spoiling the plot, Gregor solves it through a process of elimination that involves some very specific angles. Readers who like mysteries are those most likely to enjoy this novel and the series. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Hearts of Sand from

The Directive

Trust. Matthew Quirk reprises protagonist Mike Ford from his debut novel, The 500, and keeps the thrilling action moving at a rapid pace in a novel titled, The Directive. The title refers to the policy decision from the Federal Reserve that is sent to the New York Fed to implement in the capital markets. The bad guys want to intercept the directive to trade on it ahead of the market. The novel develops the complexity of the character of Mike Ford as he struggles to decide who can be trusted, and as he chooses to cross some lines that will have significant consequences for his future. Readers who like action thrillers will find a lot to enjoy in this book. I read it quickly and was thoroughly entertained. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Directive from

The Temporary Gentleman

Death. The title of Sebastian Barry’s novel, The Temporary Gentleman, refers to the period of military service by the protagonist and narrator, Jack McNulty. Set in Accra, Sligo and Ghana, the novel presents Jack’s recollections of his life. The atmosphere Barry provides with his descriptive language helps bring the novel to life, and offers a counterpoint to what for the most part is the destructive progression toward death of both Jack and his wife, Mai. Both of them choose alcohol as their path to a slow death. Jack’s recalled deep love for Mai contrasted with his proven failure to show that love through his lack of care for Mai, his frequent absence in their lives, and his failure to meet basic responsibilities within a marriage. I can’t recall enjoying a novel about ruined lives as much as I did this one, thanks to Barry’s fine prose. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Temporary Gentleman from

Things I Don't Want to Know: On Writing

Response. Deborah Levy’s book, Things I Don’t Want to Know: On Writing, is structured as a response to George Orwell’s famous 1946 essay, “Why I Write.” She heads each of four chapters with Orwell’s reasons: political purpose, historical impulse, sheer egoism and aesthetic enthusiasm. Levy’s take on these four areas is witty, feminist, and personal. Levy packs more into a single sentence than many writers can present in a chapter. Levy takes us to South Africa, Mallorca and England in a type of memoir. She led me to smile about depression, thanks to her fine prose. This is a quirky book that is unlikely to appeal to general readers. Literary fans are those most likely to enjoy her prose and understand her point of view. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Things I Don’t Want to Know from

The Rise & Fall of Great Powers

Loved. Readers should sit in a comfortable chair with a fastened seat belt to travel across three continents and thirty years through the 400 pages of Tom Rachman’s novel titled, The Rise & Fall of Great Powers. We spend time with protagonist Matilda ‘Tooly’ Zylberberg in her childhood in 1988, at the turn of the millennium, and in 2011. Tooly is alternately loved and abandoned by four other characters who appear in these time segments. I was reminded by this novel that a child never has too many people in her life who love her. Tooly is watched over and loved, and thanks to Rachman’s fine writing, her unusual life becomes clearer for readers who can tolerate the erratic structure of the novel. I was delighted by what I read. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Rise & Fall of Great Powers from

Debbie Doesn't Do It Anymore

Conversion. I can’t think of another writer who could present as a protagonist a porn star whose behavior is presented effectively as a model for any reader. Walter Mosley introduces readers to Sandra Peel, professionally known as Debbie Dare, in his novel titled, Debbie Doesn’t Do It Anymore. After spending the day performing sex acts for a movie, Sandra returns home to find her husband, Theon Pinkney, dead from electrocution in a bathtub, naked, alongside a naked and dead young woman who was aspiring to become a porn star. While Mosley writes plainly about sexual activities that might make some readers uncomfortable, the prose is not titillating, just descriptive of the reality of what is being done. The novel is a story of the conversion of Sandra from the life she has been living toward some better way of making a living. Mosley presents Sandra as fearless and compassionate, at a place on her road of life, ready to turn in a new direction. I closed the book with great satisfaction at what a fine job Mosley did in presenting me with a memorable character whose behavior I understood and respected. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Debbie Doesn’t Do It Anymore from

Sunshine on Scotland Street

Joy. I began and ended reading Alexander McCall Smith’s novel, Sunshine on Scotland Street, with a smile on my face. No single recurring character takes center stage in this eighth installment of a popular series set in Edinburgh. In one way or another, life brightens a little for each character. Joy seems to spread among the characters. I even smiled during Bruce’s time on stage. Fans of the series should be delighted by this new book. Any reader looking for a novel that directs one’s thoughts away from troubles and woe and toward joy should consider reading this book. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Sunshine on Scotland Street from


Ordinary. I was prepared to love reading Edan Lepucki’s novel, California, after hearing Stephen Colbert’s recommendation, and knowing that its dystopian subject matter is something I’ve enjoyed from other novels. Instead of loving it, I found it ok. Set a few decades in the future, the novel explores how protagonists Cal and Frida survive. Lepucki presents the ordinary aspects of their life as a couple, and embellishes with the ordinary tensions of living with others. This is nothing like the work of Margaret Atwood, Cormac McCarthy or Stephen King. Readers looking for an ordinary story set in a bleak future are those most likely to enjoy reading this novel. Rating: Three-star (It’s ok) Click here to purchase California from

Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever?

Thomas. I can’t recall a novel I’ve read that was structured solely with dialogue. Dave Eggers pulls off that structure in his novel titled, Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever? It’s fitting that the title includes two questions, because the protagonist of the novel, Thomas, is looking for answers to his questions. This deeply troubled character abducts people, takes them to a deserted military base, and interrogates them. Thomas’ questions are deep and significant ones for those of us in a society that can knock individuals off kilter, making them feel like they just don’t fit in. Eggers uses his great writing skills to draw this picture of our world in which an individual feels lost and struggles to find out what happened. I was impressed with Eggers’ skill in this novel. Its unusual structure might throw off some readers, so read an excerpt before diving in. Readers who like the exploration of deep questions are those most likely to enjoy this finely written novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever? from

I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You:

Fidelity. Readers who enjoy romantic comedy will find a lot to enjoy from Courtney Maum’s debut novel,I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You. Set mostly in Paris, this novel presents the relationship between British artist Richard Haddon and his wife, Anne-Lure, a lawyer. Anne-Lure’s reaction to her discovery of Richard’s infidelity sets the plot in motion. Maum’s expert development of this couple and a broad cast of characters presents them all as people we recognize and understand. Her descriptions of Paris, Brittany and parts of England were precise and added to my enjoyment of the novel. I caught myself booing and cheering as the plot progressed. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You from

Friday, July 18, 2014

China Dolls

Friends. Fans of Lisa See are likely to enjoy her latest novel, China Dolls. See presents the complex relationship among three Chinese-American friends in the 1930s and 1940s. Grace, Helen and Ruby come from different backgrounds and are drawn into friendship in San Francisco during the Depression. Their work and their lives become the plot for the novel, which is packed with emotional high and low notes. Readers looking for light melodrama should take a look at this novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase China Dolls from


Stalwart. When Martin Cruz Smith introduced the character Arkady Renko to readers in 1981, the policeman clashed with the expectations of his Soviet bosses. In the novel titled, Tatiana, the eighth in this series, Arkady remains at odds with his superiors. Russia changes, while Renko remains true to himself. Skeptical that a case was not a suicide, Renko and his sidekick, Victor Orlov, decide to investigate. Smith writes terrific prose, maintains the development of a complex character who is both cynical and romantic. In each novel in this series, Smith takes the reality of contemporary Russian life and places Renko into the middle of things. This latest novel is among the best in the series, and I highly recommend it to any reader who enjoys crime fiction. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Tatiana from

The Bees

Buzzed. After I heard that the protagonist of Laline Paull’s debut novel, The Bees, is an insect, I opened the book with the expectation that I would set it aside after a few pages. Instead, I was drawn into the interesting community of bees and the adventures of Flora 717. Life in the hive requires cooperation and conformity. At times, special skills are needed, and a bee with the right qualities emerges to take on the task that needs doing. We see this world from Flora 717’s point of view, and see her conformity to what’s expected and the ways in which her qualities lead her to step outside her expected role. As in any community, there is friction in the hive, and life faces regular threats to existence. Paull allows readers to explore these issues alongside Flora 717 in an unusual and intriguing novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Bees from

Six Amendments: How and Why We Should Change the Constitution

Experience. I expect that it will be a cold day in hell before we see the implementation of what retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens proposes in his book, Six Amendments: How and Why We Should Change the Constitution. Written for a general audience, Justice Stevens articulates in plain language why he thinks these changes are needed. While he made his case successfully to me, on most of these issues his opinion was in the minority while he served on the Court. This restatement of his dissent to a wider audience might broaden understanding of the issues, but the political climate and the process for amending the constitution make his proposals highly unlikely to become law. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Six Amendments from

The Fourth Revolution: The Global Race to Reinvent the State

Innovation. Readers who enjoy the clear thinking and pithy prose of The Economist are those most likely to enjoy reading The Fourth Revolution by John Micklethwait and Adrian Woolridge. The authors tackle the question of the role of the state and affirm the importance of a well-run state. They propose that innovation can reform those parts of the state that are dysfunctional, and restore the value that all citizens receive. If there’s only one public policy book you read this year, make it this one. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase The Fourth Revolution from

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

The Last Magazine

Satire. I first noted Michael Hastings’ writing when his profile of General Stanley McChrystal in Rolling Stone gathered widespread attention. I was aware of his death in an automobile crash last year. When I heard that his widow found a completed novel in his files, morbid curiosity led me to read it. In The Last Magazine, Hastings satirizes the newsweekly of 2002, around the birth of its irrelevance to journalism. The antics of the characters are hilarious and wicked. The fact that Hastings worked at Newsweek makes it easy to see the dotted lines between his fictional characters and the crew he worked with. I wonder that if he lived, he might have made the connections less transparent. Readers who pay attention to journalism are those most likely to appreciate the satire. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Last Magazine from


Geopolitics. Every time William Boyd described what James Bond is eating or drinking in his novel titled, Solo, I thought: I’ll have what he’s having. The level of description was so complete that there’s even Bond’s salad dressing recipe included in a footnote. I think Boyd’s objective was to write in the style of Ian Fleming, and hope that readers will connect to the Bond in books, and not our image of 007 from the movies. Set in 1969, Bond is sent by M to Africa to stop a war in an oil rich country. He finds himself shot by the person he thought was head of station. After a brief recuperation, and avoiding the expectation that he take time off, Bond goes after the bad guys on his own, hence the title. With cleverness and competence, Bond prevails. The surprise was how he found himself in the middle of a geopolitical game taking place way above his pay grade. If you’re a fan of the Fleming novels, you’re likely to enjoy this homage. If you can’t get the movie action out of your head, chances are this novel will be less exciting than you’d like. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Solo from

The Arsonist

Sparks. Readers who enjoy finely written prose and can tolerate a meandering and slow moving plot are those most likely to enjoy Sue Miller’s novel, The Arsonist. Protagonist Frankie Rowley has returned from Africa where she’s done aid work for a decade and a half. Unsure of what to do next, she joins her parents who have retired to the small community of Pomeroy, New Hampshire, where they had spent many summers. Fear has spread in the community when a pattern of fires indicates arson. While the arson plot meanders, Frankie develops a relationship with Bud Jacobs who left big city journalism to run the local paper. The sparks in their relationship provide the energy in the novel. This novel is satisfying summer reading: relax with a glass of lemonade, enjoy the fine prose, and listen for the fire engines. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Arsonist from

Summer House with Swimming Pool

Shadows. It takes a special writer to lead readers to appreciate the dark side of human nature. Herman Koch is such a writer, and may be an acquired taste. In Summer House with Swimming Pool, we have a group of unsympathetic characters and things are not necessarily as they appear. This is a psychological novel with deep questions at play. To what lengths will a parent go to protect a child? What constitutes murder? The title refers to the setting for a major part of the novel: a vacation home where three different families have come together on holiday. Suspend judgment, pay attention, and you’re likely to enjoy the time spent exploring some dimensions of the dark side of our nature. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Summer House with Swimming Pool from

A Fighting Chance

Populist. Most readers with an interest in public policy know some of the highlights of Elizabeth Warren’s life, especially her role in the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and her successful campaign to become a United States Senator from Massachusetts. For those who want to learn more about this outspoken public figure, she offers her perspective on her life thus far in her memoir titled, A Fighting Chance. The title refers to her main ambition in public life: to level the playing field to give the average person in America a fighting chance to succeed. The book presents her form of populism with great enthusiasm. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase A Fighting Chance from

Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt

Rigged. Most readers of Michael Lewis’ Flash Boys will close the book angry that the stock market is rigged in favor of high frequency traders. As he’s done in his previous books, Lewis takes a complicated financial topic and makes it understandable to any reader. He introduces readers to people who are interesting and he describes how they do what they do. It is the people and their narrative that led me to love this book. Otherwise, the substance of high frequency trading advantages could have been written in a short essay. Thanks to the personal narrative, especially of Brad Katsuyama, a dry topic takes on depth and richness. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase Flash Boys from

Cop Town

Policewomen. Any woman who joined the Atlanta police force in the 1970s would not recall that time fondly as the good old days. Karin Slaughter introduces protagonist Kate Murphy in a crime novel titled, Cop Town. Murphy’s husband died in Vietnam, and her affluent upbringing in Buckhead didn’t prepare her for the hostile reception she receives from male police officers when she’s groped and abused upon her arrival at the police precinct as a rookie cop. Kate ends up with partner Maggie Lawson whose brother and uncle are also police officers. The fast-paced action is punctuated by the ways Slaughter elaborates on the misogyny, racism, and homophobia rampant at that time. Fans of crime fiction will like the characters, the plot and tension of this novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Cop Town from

Ghost Ship

Reliable. There are worse ways to spend a summer afternoon than relaxing with a cool drink and reading an adventure novel. I spent a pleasant afternoon in the good company of the NUMA characters in Clive Cussler’s latest novel in that series titled, Ghost Ship. It’s no spoiler to convey that Kurt Austin performs heroic feats and Joe Zavala banters with Kurt and saves him from peril. The Trouts are fearless, competent and smart as hell. The villains are formidable. This reliable formula entertained me on a summer afternoon that was enjoyable, refreshing and well-spent. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Ghost Ship from

Shotgun Lovesongs

Friendship. So many things could have spoiled Nickolas Butler’s debut novel, Shotgun Lovesongs, and I think he avoided all of them. Four friends who grew up together in the small Wisconsin town of Little Wing are now in their thirties and have returned. Butler draws each character fully enough so readers can see their individual personalities and complexity. There’s a sense of place that Butler creates with descriptive prose that avoids nostalgia and comes across as reality. The dialogue and plot worked well to present an engaging story that kept me interested and entertained throughout. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase Shotgun Lovesongs from


Network. Fans of crime fiction are those most likely to enjoy reading Stephan Talty’s latest novel titled, Hangman. The pressure is on for Buffalo homicide detective Abbie Kearney to solve the case of a serial killer. When stymied, Abbie makes the difficult decision to tap into a network of police insiders who follow their own rules and face what consequences that might bring her in the long run. Talty matches Kearney’s wits against a creepy killer who seems to stay one step ahead. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Hangman from