Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Bob's Ten Best Books of 2016





**Eligible   by Curtis Sittenfeld is a modern retelling of Jane Austen’s classic Pride and Prejudice from the author of Prep and American Wife.    The Cincinnati Bennet’s have fallen on hard times, thanks to exorbitant medical bills, reckless spending, and the perpetual underemployment of four of the five Bennet daughters. Liz is the novel’s central character, voice of reason, and the only one holding down a regular job. Yes, after much travail, she does ‘get’ her Darcy.  Eligible sparkles with Austen-esque wit and intelligence and is a pure pleasure to read.”

**A Doubter’s Almanac by Ethan Canin is “a compelling family saga that follows troubled math genius Milo Andret from birth to death”. Milo goes from inauspicious beginnings in rural Michigan to solving a decades-old mathematical problem and teaching at Princeton. He destroys a promising career because of his alcoholism and womanizing. The second half of the novel is told by his son, who inherits many of the same skills and problems. In addition to the engaging prose, “the novel is a subtle meditation on creativity, happiness, and fate, and Canin's ability to explain complex mathematics is nothing short of miraculous.”

**Nutshell by Ian McEwan is essentially “a womb with a view” account by a precocious fetus who narrates the tale about the diabolical murder of his father - by his mother and uncle.  What might have been just a clever literary gimmick becomes a “devilishly clever and darkly humorous” in the hands of a world class talent who deserves the awards and accolades he has received.

**All Things Cease to Appear by Elizabeth Brundage is a “lyrically written, frequently shocking and immensely moving . . .literary thriller.”  At its heart of this gothic insightful story about two families entwined in their own unhappiness, is a gruesome and unsolved murder.  “A rich and complex portrait of a psychopath, marriage and community.” “Superb…think a more literary, and feminist, Gone Girl.” (Vogue) 

*A Man Call Ove by Fredrik Backman is a Swedish first novel that won raves in 25 countries as “the most charming book of the year.”    Ove was a curmudgeon when he was young and has always seen the world in black and white.  Without his Sonja, Ove decides to join her in the next world. But a young couple, their children and a bedraggled cat move in next door and upset his plans and world view.  Curmudgeons of all ages and their partners will find much hilarity and heartbreak to enjoy in this engaging story.

** Seven Brief Lesson on Physics by Carlo Rovelli is a lucid, insightful, almost poetic review of the scientists, from Einstein and Niels Bohr through Werner Heisenberg and Stephen Hawking who have shaped the science of Physics. The “concise and comprehensible writing makes sense of intricate notions such as general relativity, quantum mechanics, cosmology and thermodynamics” (The Scientific American) and “artfully hints at meanings beyond its immediate scope.” (NYTimes).

**The Lucky Years: How to Thrive in the Brave New World of Health by bestselling physician David Agus presents numerous fascinating scientific morsels—such as parabiosis (anatomically connecting two living creatures) and CRISPR (a tool for editing the genome).  Agus recommends a daily aspirin and statin drug, envisions the smartphone as both a health diary and a "virtual personal therapist," and even suggests that individuals consider banking their plasma.  He argues for a scientific and Zen-like approach to wellness that emphasizes listening to your body's signals, measuring and tracking important numbers (blood pressure, activity, weight, sleep), trusting your intuition, and keeping active.

*Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance “is a passionate and personal analysis of a culture in crisis that of white working-class Americans.” Vance writes like an insider who escaped Appalachia and understands the panic that comes from deprivation and fear, but sees his past through the lens of a law degree from Yale. “An unusually timely and deeply affecting view of a social class whose health and economic problems are making headlines in this election year.”

*The Industries of the Future by Alec Ross, former Senior Advisor to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, identifies immerging innovations while making strategic recommendations for taking advantage of opportunities in such fields as robotics, cybersecurity, genomics and digital technology.  Google’s Erick Schmidt says Ross “can see patterns in the chaos and guidance for the road forward.” He has an unusual diversity of expertise that allows him to apply multiple lenses to the world's challenges. Despite good writing and excellent mastery of complex subjects, the book is heavy going at times.


Nov-Dec Books



Midnight Sun by Jo Nesbo borrows concepts from Ove, Hitman Anders and The Revenant but doesn’t quite succeed. A failed-fixer for an Oslo drug lord doesn't  kill a contract and becomes his former employer's next target.  He escapes to a quiet Norway community north of the Arctic circle where he finds friendship, adventures, love and an opportunity for redemption.

**Nutshell by Ian McEwan is essentially “a womb with a view” account by a precocious fetus who  narrates the tale about the diabolical murder of his father (by his mother and uncle).  What might have been just a clever literary gimmick becomes a “devilishly clever and darkly humorous” in the hands of a world class talent who deserves the awards and accolades he has received.

The Taxidermist’s Daughter by Kate Mosse is “a chilling and spooky Gothic historical thriller reminiscent of Rebecca and The Turn of the Screw.” There are lots of weather reports, dark twists and eerie surprises that add bits of flavor to a thin plot.

*The Trespasser by Nina French was named one of the year’s best books on a NYT reviewer.  I didn’t think so, but it was an engaging police procedural with lots of lots of self-doubt and analysis by Dublin Murder Squad Detective Antoinette Conway. The challenge is to figure out who is trying to intimidate her out of the 's high-pressure investigation into the death of a highly polished and unsettlingly familiar woman whose demise reveals a growing number of secrets. Conway is a great detective whose deep-seated paranoia seems to work for her.

*The Whistler by John Grisham who continues to expertly and entertainingly interweave his story line with the mechanics of the legal process while addressing timely issues.  Yes, the plot is familiar and predictable, but it is still hard to put down as a lawyer for the Florida Board on Judicial Conduct investigates a major corruption case. A disbarred lawyer practicing under an assumed identity, pursues a claim under the Florida Whistleblower Law involving a circuit court judge who helps an Indian tribe, an unethical developer and the local Mafia skim millions from a casino and related enterprises.

The Woman is Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware is an Agatha Christie wantabe novel about a travel writer, Lo Blacklock,  who is assigned to review an exclusive North Sea luxury cruise and witnesses a woman being thrown overboard.  She is baffled when all passengers remain accounted for, and a nightmare that unravels as she struggles to convince everyone that  she saw a real crime and not an alcohol-induced hallucination.

*Truly, Truly Guilty by NYT best-selling author of Big Little Lies and The Husband’s Secret,  Liane Moriarty captures three “successful” couples and how a seemingly insignificant back yard cook-out changes all of their lives.  “A tale that explores the role of guilt in relationships and the power of everyday moments in family life."

Saturday, November 5, 2016

September-October Books



*Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance “is a passionate and personal analysis of a culture in crisis that of white working-class Americans.” Vance writes like an insider who escaped Appalachia  and understands the panic that comes from deprivation and fear, but sees his past through the lens of a law degree from Yale. “An unusually timely and deeply affecting view of a social class whose health and economic problems are making headlines in this election year.”

Surrender New York by Caleb Carr, does not meet the standard of his earlier The Alienist. Criminal psychologist Trajan Jones is living in exile on an upstate New York dairy farm after being fired from the NYPD, when he  is asked to investigate the suspicious death of several abandoned kids who nobody seems to miss. The pace is slow, the style is ponderous, the premise hard to believe, but it is still engaging and well-reviewed.

*Commonwealth by Ann Pachent covers five decades and explores how a chance encounter and a stolen kiss reverberates through the lives of the four parents and six children involved. The almost “blended Keating and Cousins children spend summers together and forge a bond based on a shared disillusionment with their parents. There are moments of insight and humor but   is a bit disjointed.

First Comes Love by Emily Griffin got better reviews for this story of two sisters than I thought it deserved.   Meredith grows uncertain about her life with a seemingly perfect husband and daughter while  her once-happily single sister  frantically dates and considers her options to achieve her dream of having a baby. There’s lots of angst but a happy ending that was a bit too predictable.

*Lab Girl by Hope Jahrenm , an acclaimed scientist has built three laboratories in which she's studied trees, flowers, seeds, and soil. Although she tells us a little more about trees than I wanted to know (my bad) she also shares her inspiring life story, in prose that comes from a world class scientist “with the soul of a poet.”

*The Mandibles: a family, 2029-2047 by Lionel Shriver is “a frightening, fascinating, scabrously funny glimpse into the decline that may await the U.S.”  In 2029, the Mandible clan has been counting on a sizable fortune when their 97-year-old patriarch dies. Yet the soaring national debt is so enormous that it is under siege from an upstart international currency, and the dollar is in meltdown. A bloodless world war wipes out the savings of millions of American families and each of the Mandibles must cope with the decline in their own fortunes.  Insightful, clever, thoughtful and just a bit overdone (for me).

Black Widow by Daniel Silva is the continuing saga of Gabriel Allon, art restorer, spy, and assassin, who is about to become the chief of Israel's secret spy service. But a shockingly familiar attack in Paris lures Allon back in the field to eliminate the man responsible before he can strike again. He and his team succeed but not before a massive attach in Washington is largely successful.  Not Silva’s best book, but it is fun reading, better than most and introduces the agent who is likely to be the focal point of future best sellers.

Stuck Up Suit by Vi Keeland and Penelope Ward wasn’t as good as the blurb promised, but it was a funny and sexy “bodice buster.”  Struggling career girl is attached to a handsome, rude guy on the train and picks up his phone when he leaves. When she returns it to his dazzling office, she includes some erotic selfies, he gets in touch and, despite the usual challenges of opposites in a relationship, love prevails.