Wednesday, October 2, 2013

August/September Books

*The Killer Angels by Pulitzer prize winner, Michael  Shaara, has been described as the “best novel ever written about the Civil War.” Incisive portraits of Lee, Longstreet, Meade, and other Civil War leaders are interwoven with rich historical detail to provide a fictional recreation of the pivotal   battle at Gettysburg--four of the most bloody and courageous days in our nation's history. General Robert E. Lee believes this daring and massive move with seventy thousand men can mortally wound the Union Army, but James Longstreet, his most brilliant and  loyal  General,  stubbornly argues against the plan as two armies prepare for and  fight the most important battle of the Civil War.

Light of the World  is James Lee Burke’s 20th Dave Robicheaux novel  and finds the Louisiana sheriff's detective on vacation in Montana with family and friends. There they are hounded and haunted by a psychopathic serial killer, Asa Surrette.  Dave, his best friend and their daughters confront Asa, a billionaire oil man and crooked lawmen,  are in constant danger and always talk and  hang tough. This book could easily have been subtitled "Daddies, Don't Bring Your Daughters to Montana," as people don't just get killed: they're tortured, disfigured, and eviscerated. The much-honored Burke (two Edgars, a Guggenheim Fellowship) is still a master storyteller, but has done better—much better.

**The Boy Who Could See Demons byCarolyn Jess Cooke is reminiscent of “The Sixth Sense” with psychotherapist  Dr. Anya Molokova who  has personal reasons for specializing in childhood schizophrenia. Her patient is 10-year-old Alex Connolly who sees demons. Alex has been seeing "Ruen" since he was 5. The demon tells Alex things that the boy couldn’t possibly know on his own. Ruen insists he’s Alex’s friend but we soon learn that he wants Alex to kill someone. Anya’s growing attachment to Alex worries her colleagues at  a child and adolescent treatment center in Belfast. None of them realizes how much she is troubled by the anniversary of her daughter’s suicide and her mother’s long battle with mental illness.

**The Universe vs. Alex Woods  by Gavis Extence is the tale of the son of a fortune teller, who was struck by a meteorite when he was ten years old.  Alex befriends a grumpy old widower and proves his friendship by getting stopped at the border by customs with a large bag of marijuana and an urn full of ashes. It is beautifully written,  wise and funny—a blend of Mark Hadden (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night) and Kurt Vonnegut (deity  of a church/reading group started by Alex).
The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman is a modern fantasy about fear, love, magic, and sacrifice in the story of a family at the mercy of dark forces, whose only defense is the three mysterious women who live on a farm at the end of the lane.  “A stirring, terrifying, and elegiac fable as delicate as a butterfly's wing and as menacing as a knife in the dark.”

 *This Town: Two Parties and a Funeral--Plus Plenty of Valet Parking in America's Gilded Capital  by Mark Leiovich, New York Times political feature correspondent,  examines the power wars and exploitative practices of Washington, D.C.  With scathing insight and humor, Leibovich reveals how  political and journalism careers are made and broken while news events,scandals, and even funerals are used as networking opportunities.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

July Books

Young Titan: The Making of Winston Churchill by Michael Shelden covers the World War II prime minister's early career  (1901-1936) with emphasis on his contributions to building a modern navy, his experimentation with radical social reforms, and his lesser-known romantic pursuits. The research is solid and the writing is accomplished, but this was not my favorite book about Churchill.
Six Days by Harland Corbin takes place six years after Professor Jake Fisher watches Natalie, the love of his life, marry another man. When Sanders learns of his rival's death and attends the funeral, he discovers that Natalie is not the woman he remembers and feels compels to search for answers.  The book is a well-honed, professional formula with almost too m any coincidences involving his alma mater and current employer.

Evening at Five by Gail Goodwin, a three-time National Book Award nominee and bestselling author of eleven critically acclaimed novels was described as “a literary jewel, a bittersweet novella of absence and presence and the mysterious gap between them.” Seven months after the unexpected death of her husband, Rudy, Christina reflects on almost thirty years of life together, the bond between them, and her grief, from the perspective of their long-time ritual of getting together every evening at five o'clock to share drinks and their mutual love of language and music.

A Delicate Truth by John Le Carré is vintage British spy craft.  A counter-terrorist operation, codenamed Wildlife, is mounted on Gibraltar to capture and abduct a high-value jihadist arms buyer.  The operation is so secret that even the Minister’s personal private secretary, Toby Bell, is not cleared for it. Three years later, a disgraced Special Forces Soldier posthumously forces Toby to ask if Wildlife was as success as reported or a human tragedy that was ruthlessly covered up?

Monday, July 8, 2013

June Books

One False Move by Harland Corbin Myron Bolitar series has the unforgettable, smart mouth sports agent agreeing to protect a top female basketball star.  He has both a professional and personal interest in Brenda but there is a chasm of corruption and lies, a vicious young Mafioso on the make, and a secret that some people are dying to keep–and others are killing to protect. The dialogue is crisp and engaging, but the conclusion is a bit disappointing.

Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky tells the story of men and women thrown together in frightening circumstances beyond their control. As Parisians flee the city, human folly surfaces in every imaginable way. Nemirovsky was already a highly successful writer living in Paris when she started the book but she was also a Jew, and in 1942 she was arrested and deported to Auschwitz. The book remained  hidden and unfinished for 64 years.  It is brilliant in places, but would doubtless been better if she had lived to finish the work.

One Shot by Lee Childs continues to chronicle the exploits of ex-military investigator Jack Reacher who is called in by a man accused of a lethal sniper attack on a heartland city.  The evidence against him is (almost too) overwhelming, but Reacher (picture Tom Cruise  at 6’6” and 250 pounds)  teams up with a young defense attorney to find an unseen enemy who is manipulating events behind the scenes.  This isn’t great literature but an engaging vacation diversion.

*Life After Life by Jill McCorkle follows the residents, staff, and neighbors of a North Carolina retirement center (from twelve-year-old Abby to eighty-five-year-old Sadie) as they share profound discoveries about each other and themselves.  McCorkle captures a cacophony of voices (almost too many) as they subtly experience their own transformations.

*The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving by Jonathan Evison  was described by the NYTimes as “a story that offers a profound look into what it takes to truly care for another person.” After losing virtually everything meaningful in his life, Benjamin trains to be a caregiver, but his first client, a fiercely independent teen with muscular dystrophy, gives him more than he bargained for and soon the two embark on a road trip to visit the boy's ailing father.

Monday, June 3, 2013

May Books

 Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan got great reviews—“A gleeful and exhilarating tale of global conspiracy, complex code-breaking, high-tech data visualization, young love, rollicking adventure, and the secret to eternal life.” After the Great Recession sidelines his tech career, Clay Jannon takes a job at a strange bookstore in San Francisco, and soon realizes that the establishment is a facade for a strange secret sect that will take the intellectual resources of his nerdy friends and Google to unravel.

*The Next Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business by Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen is a “widely anticipated, transformational vision of the future: a world where everyone is connected—a world full of challenges and benefits.” Clearly, it is an important book by “two of our most prescient and informed public thinkers” and deserving of incredible reviews from around the world. Nevertheless,  after struggling through the first 200 pages, I settled for a 20 page summary prepared by Amazon. 

The Trust by Norb Vonnegut offers an insider’s perspective   and dark humor in a fast-talking suspense thriller.  Summoned to Charleston to settle the affairs of a drowned real estate magnate and mentor who had been running a lucrative investment firm and a successful philanthropic trust,  Grove O'Rourke authorizes a charitable transfer only to discover disturbing links between the organization and illicit groups. Lots of action and close escapes follow in a readable novel that isn’t likely to make many college reading lists.

*The Dinner by Herman Koch is a dark, suspenseful novel of love and hate and how they often overlap. At a fashionable, pretentious Amsterdam restaurant, two couples move from small talk to the wrenching shared challenge of their teenage sons' senseless act of violence that has triggered a police investigation and will force the parents to make the most difficult decision of their lives. During the course on a single meal, each parent will determine the extent to which each family will go to protect their children. “Tautly written, incredibly gripping, and told by an unforgettable narrator,” The Dinner has doubtless been the topic of countless dinner party debates in 26 countries.

The Kingdom of Men by Kim Barnes, a Pulitzer Prize finalist for In the Wilderness, traces the experiences of a dirt poor woman in the 1960s who gets pregnant to escape her Oklahoma town and then follows her new husband to an expat community provided by The Saudi American Petroleum Company.  As she learns to enjoy the relative luxury of her new life, the death of a young Bedouin woman causes her to question the prescribed role of women and the values of her new community. A great concept, but crippled by one-dimensional characters and a disappointing ending.

Monday, May 6, 2013

April Books

**Kind of Kin by Arilla Askey deserves the enthusiastic NYT review (  When Oklahoma passes a tough "illegals" law, Robert John Brown is sent to prison for hiding migrant workers.  Brown's daughter Sweet Georgia is left to manage a family (including a troublesome son and an orphaned nephew) that is coming apart at the seams as her marriage collapses under the stress. Askew’s treatment of poverty, politics religion, immigration and family (dis)functionality is masterful, heart-breaking and laugh-out-loud funny at the same time.

*The Art Forger by Barbara A. Shapiro’ s razor-sharp writing and plot twists makes this an absorbing literary thriller that also gives us  three centuries of forgers, art thieves, and obsessive collectors. Claire makes her living reproducing famous paintings   for an online retailer.  To improve her situation, she is lured into a Faustian bargain a powerful gallery owner and agrees to forge a painting—one of the Degas masterpieces stolen from the Gardner Museum—in exchange for a one-woman show in his renowned gallery. Of course, there are a few wrinkles in the well-researched and written novel.

The Black Box by Michael Connelly has LAPD detective, Harry Bosch trying to solve a 20 year old cold case. Bosh links the bullet from a recent crime to 1992 the killing of a young female photographer during the L.A. riots.  The new ballistics match indicate that her death was not random violence, but something connected to a deeper intrigue. Like an investigator combing through the wreckage after a plane crash, Bosch searches for the "black box," the one piece of evidence that will pull the case together. Not Connelly’s best, but still an engaging, quick read.

A Land More Kind than Home by Wiley Cash is a southern coming of age debut novel about life in an unassuming mountain town that believes in protecting its own secrets.  Jess Hall is plunged into an adulthood for which he is not prepared when his autistic older brother sneaks a look at something he isn't supposed to with catastrophic repercussions for his family, the charismatic, snake-handling minister and the strange sect that follows him 
*Mortality by Christopher Hitchens is accurately described as a "courageous, insightful and candid thoughts on malady and mortality from one of our most celebrated writers". Hitchens maintains his skepticism about religion and life after death while chronicling his losing battle with esophageal cancer while writing columns for Vanity Fair on politics and culture and also describing his personal  and philosophical view of life and death.

*The Future: Six Drivers of Global Change by Al Gore is an important, impressive  jumble of a book. Gore surveys our planet’s clouded horizon and offers a sober, learned, and moderately hopeful forecast “in the visionary tradition of Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock.”  The book reflects great breath of knowledge and research with genuine passion and commitment, but like the former VP himself, it tends to go on a bit and needed a firmer editorial hand.

Dark Places by Gillian Flynn is an engaging mystery but not as well-crafted as her later book, Gone Girl. For a price, Libby Day will reconnect with the people involved in the murder of her mother and two sisters in "The Satan Sacrifice of Kinnakee, Kansas."  At seven, she testified that her brother Ben was the murderer.   Now 32 and down on her luck, she is not so sure as the unimaginable and almost unbelievable truth emerges. The book shows signs of the talent that emerges in her next novel.

Brown’s Guide to the Good Life Without Tears, Fears or Boredom by David Brown is pretty well summarized in the title. The former editor of Cosmopolitan, husband of a subsequent editor (Helen Gurley Brown) producer and author  is wise, witty, and irreverent as reflects on a life well-lived from his tenth decade. "Helpful, humorous bits of advice and sage pithy truisms.”

The Carriage House by Louisa Hall is a “breakthrough debut novel” by the talented daughter of our neighbors.  For three generations, a carriage house has stood on the Adair property, a symbol of their family’s place in the world. Now, the house is crumbling, as is the family.  After a stroke reduces the patriarch, daughters Diana, Elizabeth, and Isabelle take on the battle for the carriage house and a more functional family dynamic. Ultimately they overcome deep and painful misunderstandings and betrayals to find forgiveness and hope.