Tuesday, December 4, 2012


*The Lower River by Paul Theroux “wrestles with questions of good intentions and harsh reality...” Ellis Hock runs an old-fashioned menswear store in a small town where he dreams about  the four years he spent in Malawi with the Peace Corps.  When his wife leaves him, he realizes that the place for him to go is back to his on the remote Lower River, where he can be happy again. He finds dusty village transformed.  The school he built is a ruin, the church and clinic are gone, and poverty and apathy have worsened. They remember and welcome him, but is his new life an escape or a trap?  Updating Thomas Wolfe, Theroux proves you can’t go home to Africa either.


Gilded Age by Claire McMillan  re-imagines  Wharton’s The House of Mirth as a modern story set amid the upper crust of Cleveland instead of New York. While the book hews to the original in terms of plot, “the dialogue is sharp and witty, and the characters inhabit a world of their own making.” It’s a tragic comedy that’s alternately humorous and heartbreaking.


Double Fault by Lionel Shriver is described as “a brilliant and unflinching novel” as it explores the depths of conflict between professional and personal commitment. Tennis has been the love of Willy Novinsky's life since she first picked up a racquet at four. A middle-ranked pro at twenty-three, she's meets her match in Eric Oberdorf, a low-ranked, untested Princeton grad who also intends to make his mark on the international tennis circuit. Eric becomes Willy's first passion off the court, and eventually they marry. But while the marriage begins well, full-tilt competition soon puts a strain on their relationship.


Girl in the Park by Mariah Fredricks is the story of a “Preppie Murder” and called a haunting psychological thriller.” When Wendy Geller's body is found in Central Park, shy Rain, once Wendy's best friend, knows there was more to Wendy than the newspaper hyperbole.  As she struggles to separate the friend she knew from the tangle of gossip and headlines, Rain becomes determined to discover the truth about the murder. Written in a voice at often riveting, and convincing, Frederick's mystery exposes the cracks in the New York City world of privilege.


Drawing Conclusions by Donna Leon explores the death of a retired teacher who was helping abused women escape offers a sensitive exploration of a contemporary social problem. It also delivers a typically Leon-style ambiguous ending in which traditional justice is either less important than or even detrimental to Brunetti's real concern: doing his best to set things right for the troubled people he encounters in the course of his investigation. This is a popular series set in Venice and is particularly pleasant to read while in the area.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

September Books

*Tigers in Red Weather by Lisa Klaussmann is “an unforgettable debut novel from a writer of extraordinary insight and accomplishment." Nick and her cousin, Helena, have grown up summering on Martha's Vineyard in a family estate known as Tiger House. After WWII, the two women are on the cusp of their 'real lives' and the gilt begins to crack. Then, in the 1960s, Nick and Helena--with their children, Daisy and Ed--try to recapture that sense of possibility but the intrusion of violence causes everything to unravel and their prescribed lives change forever. Told from five points of view, the novel has excellent character and class development with suspenseful longing for something even better.


It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism  by Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein, one a democrat and the other arepublican expert on Congress, outline recommendations for ending obstructionist tactics and artificial barriers to compromise, suggesting specific institutional restructuring measures while calling on the public and media to work with government to correct problems rather than perpetuating acerbic campaign cycles.   

The Absolutist by John Boyne Will is set in the fall of 1919 when World War I veteran Tristan Sadler travels from London to Norwich to deliver a package of letters to the sister of Will Bancroft, a soldier Tristan met while training for the war in 1916. Tristan bears the scars of war on his body, but the real scars come from the horrors of war—especially WWI superimposed on his love for Will, who becomes an absolutist after having to face the immorality of war.


Criminal by Karin Slaughter is “an epic tale of love, loyalty, and murder that encompasses forty years, two chillingly similar murder cases, and a good man’s deepest secrets.” Slaughter uses parallel stories, separated by 40 years, to chronicle the challenges of Atlanta’s emergence as a major metropolitan area while coping with racism, sexism and too many murders.

Stay Close by Coben Harlan tracks three people living lives they never wanted, hiding secrets that even those closest to them would never suspect. As the consequences of long-ago events come together and threaten to ruin lives, a suburban housewife, a failing photographer and a grieving father each confronts the dark side of the American Dream.  An engaging book, but not Harlan’s best. 


The Innocent by David Baldacci is an engaging story of a government hit man with a heart.
After aborting an assignment rather than kill a child, he crosses paths with a fourteen-year-old runaway from a foster home. She is smart, streetwise and in danger because her parents were murdered, and her own life is on the line. Robie rescues her and finds he can't walk away-- until the culprits are captured/killed and a nefarious plot revealed.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

August Books

The Leopard by Joe Nesbo and Don Bartlett is described as an “electrifying new addition to Nesbø’s internationally acclaimed series. Both will I must have missed something as I found it confusing, unbelievable and boring.  Perhaps I am losing my ability to keep track of dozens Scandinavian names and places peopled by horrific crimes and bizarre plot twists. Through it all, iconic Henry Hole manages to see what everyone else misses and survive multiple calamities.

*The Lost Prince by Selden Edwards is a worthy sequel to his debut success, The Little Book.  Recently returned from the experience of a lifetime in fin de siècle Vienna, Eleanor Burden settles into her expected place in society--except for one small difference. Eleanor possesses an unshakable belief that she has advance knowledge of major historical events to occur during her lifetime-- and incredible insights into investment opportunities-- “A ‘Back to the Future’ for intellectuals."

Talullia Rising by Glen Duncan, is a sequel to his the  acclaimed  The Last Werewolf.  Talulla Demetriou is grieving for her werewolf lover, on the run from WOCOP and searching for a place to give birth to Jake’s child in secret and trying to protect her twins from a cabal of blood-drinking religious fanatics.  Duncan is a gifted writer who harnesses  “the same audacious imagination and dark humor, the same depths of horror and sympathy, the same full-tilt narrative energy (as)…his acclaimed The Last Werewolf, Glen Duncan now gives us a…the definitive twenty-first-century female of the species. “ Perhaps, but, for me, a  little too much of a bad thing.

-69 Barrow Street by Lawrence Block has two distinctions: It is the first e-book I’ve been able to check out of the SB Public Library—and the worst book I’ve read in a long time. Block is a very productive, prolific writer who can (and usually does) much better than this embarrassment.  It must be something he dashed of a long time ago, couldn’t get published until the advent of e-publishing and thought it might bring in a few shekels.  What a shame to damage his brand in this manner.

Monday, August 6, 2012

June-July Books

** The Creative Destruction of Medicine: How the Digital Revolution Will Create Better Health Care by Eric  J. Topol, one of the nation’s top physicians and a leading voice on the digital revolution in medicine, argues that radical innovation and a true democratization of medical care are within reach, but only if consumers demand it. Topol asks “what happens when you combine cellular phone technology with the cellular aberrations in disease? Or create a bridge between the digital revolution with the medical revolution?” “This marvelous book by Eric Topol, a leading cardiologist, gene hunter and medical thinker, answers not  these questions and many more”—an amazing combination of breath, depth and excellent writing.

A Dog’s Journey by W. Bruce Cameron is a  sequel to bestselling A Dog's Purpose. In case you’ve forgotten, Buddy is a good dog.  After searching for his purpose through several eventful lives in Purpose, Buddy is sure that he has found and fulfilled it. Yet, when Buddy is reborn, he realizes that he has a new destiny—to take care of Clarity, a vibrant but troubled teenager.  “A charming and heartwarming story of hope, love, and unending devotion”, Journey asks if we really take care of our pets, or do they take care of us? … “a moving story of unwavering loyalty and a love.” 

What Money Won’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets  by Michael J. Sandel asks if  there something wrong with a world in which everything is for sale? Market values seem to have crowded out nonmarket norms in almost every aspect of life—medicine, education, government, law, art, sports, even family life and personal relations. Sandel makes an important point--over and over again.

*History of a Pleasure Seeker  by Richard Mason is “an opulent, romantic coming-of-age drama..(during)  Europe’s belle époque, written…with a lightness of touch that is wholly modern and original. “It is about a young man with an instinctive appreciation for pleasure and a gift for finding it. Piet’s father is an austere university administrator and his late mother, a singing teacher gave him a thorough grounding in the arts of charm. Piet becomes a  tutor to the troubled son of Europe’s leading hotelier As the young man enters this glittering world, he learns its secrets—and soon finds his life transformed as he changes the lives of those around him.

Rescue by Anita Shreve's is a smooth, but somewhat disappointing, story of EMT Peter Webster who is drawn to a woman he rescues at the scene of a one-car drunk driving accident. Webster is a well-intentioned straight arrow, but their affair evolves into marriage and parenthood with the birth of a daughter Rowan. Sheila's drinking leads to another accident and Webster sends her away to avoid jail time. Years later, the daughter is a typically turmoil-ridden high school senior and her tribulations prompt Webster to reach out to Sheila to help. “Webster and Sheila are more type than character--good-hearted man, damaged woman incapable of love--and the paramedic rescue scenes feel mostly like opportunities for Shreve to show off her research.”

*The World in 2050: Four Forces Shaping Civilization's Northern Future  by Laurence C. Smith points to four major engines of change: population growth; the increasing demand for natural resources; economic and cultural globalization; and climate change.  Smith believes that the future is brightest for will be the northern rim of nations including the Northern United States, Canada, Russia and the Scandinavian countries. Here there are still plenteous stores of oil, natural gas, water and arable land. The melting of ice in the Arctic Ocean has opened that area up for mineral exploration and extraction and increased the number and reach of shipping lanes. In the end, Smith does not see humanity as merely a passive observer and victim of all these seismic shifts.

They Eat Puppies Don’t They by Christopher Buckley skewers our relationship with China, along with the corruption endemic to lobbying, weapons manufacturing, and media spin. Lobbyist, Walter "Bird" McIntyre, is asked to "whip up…anti-Chinese fervor" to win support for a new secret weapon. Hapless and endearing, Bird divides his time between a condo he calls the Military-Industrial Duplex and the country estate called “Upkeep”, home to his trophy equestrian wife, Alzheimer's-afflicted mother, and freeloading brother Bewks, a Civil War reenactor, while writing egregiously clichéd thrillers. Fights break out on Chris Matthews' Hardball, the Dalai Lama is in peril, and the reasonable president of China is having nightmares about the US and political enemies at home…pleasant to read but not great. 

A Plague of Secrets by John Lecroart brings back Dismas Hardy and Abe Glitsky “in a compelling and timely legal thriller filled with blackmail, political intrigue, and multiple murders.” When Dylan Vogler, a charming ex-convict who manages the Bay Beans West coffee shop in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury district is found murdered, his knapsack is filled with high-grade marijuana. Maya Townshend-the beautiful socialite niece of the city's mayor, and the absentee owner of the shop-know becomes the leading suspect and Dimas must be creative to help her avoid conviction. Not Lecroat’s best book, but still an engaging story with lots of surprises.

*A Dog’s Purpose by W. Bruce Cameron is the engaging story of a dog’s search for his purpose over the course of several lives. After a rough ‘first incarnation’ as a stray, Bailey is surprised to find himself reborn as a rambunctious golden-haired puppy after a tragically short life as a stray mutt, Bailey’s search for his life’s meaning leads him into 8-year-old Ethan. During their adventures Bailey joyously discovers how to be a good dog. But, there’s more for him to learn, and the ending is moving and well crafted. “Heartwarming, insightful, and often laugh-out-loud funny…this moving and beautifully crafted story teaches… that every creature is born with a purpose.”  

*An Available Man by Hilma Wolitzer explores the fallout of suddenly becoming single later in life, and the chaos and joys of falling in love the second time around. When Edward Schuyler, a modest and bookish sixty-two-year-old science teacher, is widowed, he finds himself ambushed by phone calls from widows seeking love, lunch or sex. Edward doesn’t feel available and prefers solitude and the familiar routine of work, gardening, and bird-watching. Then his stepchildren place an ad in The New York Review of Books on his behalf and letters flood in. Gradually and reluctantly, he begins dating (“dating after death,”), and his encounters are surprising, comical, and sad. “With wit, warmth, and a keen understanding of the heart, An Available Man … celebrates the endurance of love, and its thrilling capacity to bloom anew.”

The Beginner’s Goodbye by Anne Tyler “gives us a wise, haunting, and deeply moving new novel …(about) how Aaron,  a middle-aged man, ripped apart by the death of his wife, is gradually restored by her frequent appearances. Though crippled, Aaron is a little strange, but not handicapped. His unremarkable marriage ends when Dorothy is killed.  He is lost until her unexpected appearances help him to live in the moment and find peace.  “A beautiful, subtle exploration of loss and recovery, pierced throughout with Anne Tyler’s humor, wisdom, and always penetrating look at human foibles.”

April Books

**Girl Child by Tupelo Hassman is an exquisite counterpoint to “Starboard Sea” as Rory Hendrix devours the Girl Scout Handbook to discover a way out of the Reno trailer park where she lives with her mother, Jo, a hard-luck bartender at the Truck Stop. Rory’s been told that she is a “third-generation bastard surely on the road to whoredom.”  From diary entries, social workers’ reports, half-recalled memories, arrest records, family lore, Supreme Court opinions, and her grandmother’s letters, Hassman crafts a devastating collage that shows the frighteningly unfair world of the bottom 1%.

**The Starboard Sea by Amber Dermont is “A rich, quietly artful novel that is bound for deep water, with questions of beauty, power and spiritual navigation.” Jason Prosper lives in the elite world of Manhattan penthouses, Maine summer estates, old-boy prep schools, and exclusive sailing clubs. Now at a “last chance” school trying to cope with the suicide of his sailing partner and best friend, Jason needs to grow up.  The novel is reminiscent of Catcher in the Rye with a little mystery thrown in for good measure.

Bull Street by David Lender is the story of Richard Blum, a naïve, young Wall Streeter who gives a jaded billionaire the chance for redemption, as they figure out how they were framed by an insider trading ring before they wind up in jail or dead.  Lender knows Wall Street and weaves an engaging, albeit formulaic, story that lacks subtlety or nuance. 
**Abundance: The Future is Better Than You Think  by Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler  optimistically  documents how four forces—exponential technologies, the DIY innovator, the “Technophilanthropist”, and the Rising Billion—are conspiring to solve our biggest problems  in the near and medium term future.  The authors introduce dozens of innovators who are making great strides in each our major problem areas--water, food, energy, healthcare, education, freedom and lays out a strategic roadmap for governments, industry and entrepreneurs.

*Schmidt Steps Back by Louis Begley reveals a very different Schmidt than the movie version with Jack Nicholas.  Schmidt is now in his late 70’s and is reviewing the past decade with numerous, varied lovers (a 20-year old Puerto Rican waitress, a 50-year-old Czech NGO manager and the French widow of a former law partner, among others).  He copes with the traumas of his estranged daughter by sharing his financial largess-- made possible partially through his new role as head of a multi-national foundation founded by his billionaire friend. Despite the broad brush, Begley manages to paint a portrait that is engaging and almost believable.

The Obamas by Jodi Kantor “takes us deep inside the White House as the first couple try to grapple with their new roles, change the country, raise children, maintain friendships, and figure out what it means to be the first black President and First Lady.” Filled with excellent detail and insight into their partnership, emotions and personalities, The Obamas is a balanced, yet intimate portrait that will surprise informed readers who thought they knew the President and First Lady.

The Darlings by Christina Alger is “a sophisticated page-turner about a wealthy New York family embroiled in a financial scandal” a la Bernie Madoff. As the son-in-law of Carter Carling, attorney Paul Ross has grown accustomed to New York society and all of its luxuries.  When the economy tanks, Carter offers Paul  the chance to head the legal team at his hedge fund.  When the Darling family is involved in a red-hot scandal, Paul must decide if he will he save himself or protect the family business at all costs.

May Books

*Defending Jacob by William Landy is a gripping, multiple-faceted story with well-crafted plot twists and turns.  A 14-year-old boy is stabbed to death near his middle school in a Boston suburb, and Assistant DA Andy Barber takes the case, despite the fact that his son, Jacob, was a classmate of the victim. But when Jacob become the prime suspect, Andy is removed from the case and spends the next several months trying to understand his son and assist in his defense. I thought the work was a worthy heir of Scott Thurow at his best.

*The Social Conquest of Earth by E.O. Wilson is a panoramic view of how a hundred million years of evolution has shaped the history of civilization.  The acclaimed biologist discusses how morality, religion, and the creative arts are biological in nature and defends his theory that the origin of the human condition is due to group, not family, selection.  In addition to his scientific credentials,  Wilson is a talented writer with a sense of humor that almost kept me engaged through seemingly  endless millennia of evolutionary progress.

*Watergate: A Novel by Thomas Mallon is a richly detailed, engaging fictional re-examination of the most infamous political scandal of my lifetime. In the hands of a master historical novelist, the well-traveled story becomes a fresh page-turner.  Told from the perspectives of seven characters, we get lots of factual data, gossip and creative invention.

The Inquisitor by Mark Allen Smith isn’t Dostoyevsky, but about a superstar in the "information retrieval" business. Geiger's clients count on him to extract the truth from even the most reluctant subjects. He prefers to avoid bloodshed and never works with children. When his partner Harry brings a client who insists on interrogating a twelve-year-old boy, Geiger rescues the boy and promises to protect him from further harm. But Geiger and Harry may become the victims of an utterly ruthless adversary. Geiger remains superbly competent after being tortured, shot, stabbed, beaten and almost drowned--you get the picture.

*The Expats by Chris Palone is a stunningly confident, complex first novel by an ex-patriot editor. Dexter is offered a job in Luxembourg with a private bank, and his CIA agent wife Kate (who hasn’t told Dexter about her real job)  finds housework and lunches with other expats boring. Moreover, Dexter's new, uncharacteristic behavior and the curiosity of  friends Julia and Bill raise her suspicions. “Kate's character, her CIA experiences, and her new life are examined in granular detail, all of which helps drive an intricate, suspenseful plot that is only resolved in the final pages.”

Friday, March 30, 2012

March Books

**Turn of Mind by Alice LaPlante is a literary thriller about a retired orthopedic surgeon suffering from dementia and suspected of killing her best friend, Amanda who was found dead with four fingers surgically removed. The prime suspect, Dr. White doesn’t know whether she did it. Told in White’s fractured and eloquent voice, a picture emerges of the surprisingly intimate, complex alliance between these proud, forceful life-long friends. As the investigation deepens, White’s relationships with her live-in caretaker and two grown children intensify and everyone wonders if White’s shattered memory is preventing her from revealing the truth or helping her hide it? “A startling portrait of a disintegrating mind clinging to reality through anger, frustration, shame, and unspeakable loss.”

The End of Marking Time by C. J. West is a dystopian novel about gifted housebreaker, Michael O'Connor, who awakens inside an ultramodern criminal justice system where the Supreme Court has declared long term incarceration to be cruel and unusual punishment. Felons now enter reeducation programs where they must satisfy an army of counselors and a black box that teaches them everything they failed to learn from kindergarten through adulthood. Michael slowly realizes everything he does is evaluated to determine whether he lives or dies.

*Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje recounts a 1950s voyage by an 11-year-old boy from Colombo to England. For meals, he is seated at the “cat’s table”—far from the Captain’s Table—with a ragtag group of “insignificant” adults and two other boys. As the ship moves across the Indian Ocean, the Suez Canal, and into the Mediterranean, the boys tumble from one adventure to another. One man talks with them about jazz and women, another opens the door to the world of literature. The narrator’s elusive, beautiful cousin Emily becomes his confidante, allowing him to see himself “with a distant eye” for the first time, and to feel the first stirring of desire. A well-written and reviewed ‘coming of age’ novel, but a little slow in places.

Lost Souls of Tennessee by Amy Franklin-Willis mines the fault lines in a Southern working-class family as forty-two-year-old Ezekiel Cooper and his mother, Lillian, journey from the 1940s to 1980s and Zeke moves from anointed son, to honorable sibling, to unhinged middle-aged man. After Zeke twin brother drowns and his wife divorces him, Zeke attempts to escape by leaving his two young daughters and his estranged mother and finds refuge with cousins in Virginia horse country. As severe weather, illness, and a new romance collide, Zeke has to decide the fate of his family. A good, but not great, southern voice makes a respectable debut.

The Night Train by Clyde Edgerton is set in 1963 when Dwayne Hallston discovers James Brown and wants to perform just like him and his black friend Larry aspires to play piano like Thelonius Monk. A dancing chicken and a mutual love of music help Dwayne and Larry as they try to achieve their dreams and maintain a friendship, even while the North Carolina culture makes it difficult. Not Edgerton's best, but it recalls our divided national history and how music sometimes helped bring us together.

Pity the Billionaire: The Hard-Times Swindle and the Unlikely Comeback of the Right by Thomas Frank is described as “, a wonderfully insightful and sardonic look at why the worst economy since the 1930s has brought about the revival of conservatism.” Frank looks for the anger about the recent economic crisis but finds loud demands that the economic system be made even harsher on the recession's victims and that the winners should receive even grander prizes. Good documentation and humor but too repetitive and one-sided, even for someone who still wears an Obama baseball cap.

*The Drop by Michael Connelly is not a great book, but it is very well written and fun to read. Harry Bosch is dealing with a cold case and one that is very hot. DNA from a 1989 crime matches a 29-year-old convicted rapist. Was he an eight-year-old killer or are all of the lab's DNA cases questionable? Then Bosch's longtime nemesis, Councilman Irving demands that Harry handle the investigation of his son’s death. Bosch’s investigation discovers a killer operating unknown for decades and a political conspiracy that threatens the LA police department.