Saturday, May 31, 2014

April-May Books

*The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin “is a love letter to the world of books.”  A.J. Fikry, the irascible owner of Island Books, has endured some tough years: his wife dies, his bookstore is failing, and his rare edition of Poe poems is stolen.  He has given up on life until a baby is left in the store and A.J. decides to  make his life over.  This enchanting novel is literate, witty and wise.

**The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden by  Jonas Jonasson   is a picaresque tale of how one person's actions can have far-reaching—even global—consequences. Nombeko Mayeki has risen from a latrine cleaner in Soweto to become a chief adviser at the helm of one of the world's most secret projects in South Africa.  She holds the fate of the world in her hands when she discovers a nuclear missile that was supposed to have been dismantled. The satirical  novel has the same charm and sometimes over-the-top humor as Jonasson’s previous,  The 100 Year Old Man Who Climbed Out of a Window and Disappeared.

Still Life by Louis Penny  is a cozy  mystery  featuring a small in village in Quebec complete with a cast of eccentric characters, a wise, insightful Chief Inspector with a varied team and, of course, a murder—of  Jane Neal, a beloved and elderly member of  Three Pines. None of the residents  can believe that anyone would murder Jane, though,  apparently  one of them has done just that.

*Red by John Logan is a searing portrait of an artist's ambition and vulnerability.  Abstract expressionist Mark Rothko has  landed the biggest commission in  recent history for  a series of murals in New York's Four Seasons Restaurant.  Rothko works feverishly with his young assistant,  but when Ken gains the confidence to challenge him, Rothko faces the agonizing possibility that his crowning achievement could also become his undoing. “Raw and provocative” in print and in performance.

*Shotgun Love Songs by Nickolas Butler is a debut novel called "Impressively original"  by The New York Times.  Five childhood friends from small-town Wisconsin went their separate ways with careers and families  are reunited during a wedding  visit marked by culture clashes,  pursuits of meaning and a woman who inspires passion in each of them. Butler powerfully  captures small town Wisconsin,  a specific time and place, yet describes the universal human condition. "This book does for Wisconsin what Larry McMurtry did for Texas in The Last Picture Show."   

The Other Story by Tatiana de Rosnay, the best-selling author of Sarah's Key, is engaging and well-written, but lacks the emotional depth of her previous novel. Hoping to put a generations-old secret behind him, Nicholas Duhamel becomes a successful writer and pens a novel that makes him famous before he is forced to reexamine his family's disturbing past.  She does capture and illustrates the difficulty of being productive and creative after writing a very successful book.

**The Financial Life of Poets by Jess Walter is the story of Matt Prior, who’s losing his job, his wife, his house, and his mind—until, all of a sudden, he discovers a way that he might just possibly be able to save it all . . . and have a pretty damn great time doing it.  You’ll have a damn great time reading this laugh-out –loud funny and insightful  book. “Walter's wildly funny, heartrending novel is a clever meditation on the American Dream gone horribly wrong.”

 **The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson won the Pulitzer Prize and was described as  “An exquisitely crafted novel that carries the reader on an adventuresome journey into the depths of totalitarian North Korea and into the most intimate spaces of the human heart.” Growing up in orphan work camp, Pak Jun Do rises to prominence using instinctive talents and eventually becomes a professional kidnapper and romantic rival to Kim Jong Il. His story is full of delicious satire, brilliant insight and empathy. 

*Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfilment by Tal Ben-Shahar, the teacher of Harvard University’s most popular and life-changing course.  One out of every five Harvard  undergraduates  lined up to take the class summarized in this book. The book (and course) is based on the new science of positive psychology, explains what happiness is and how to strive for it.

Missing You by Harlan Corben  has NYPD Detective Kat Donovan looking for love in all the wrong places.  Her on-line dating service has a picture of  her ex-fiancé Jeff, the man who walked out on her 18 years ago.  Corben almost manages to weave together alternative explanation of  Jeff’s bizarre behavior, her father’s death,  a missing mother, and a precocious teen-ager…almost. 

The Cairo Affair by Olen Steinhauer's masterfully unveils a portrait of a troubled marriage, “a jigsaw puzzle of loyalty and betrayal, against a dangerous world of political games where allegiances are never clear and outcomes are never guaranteed.” Minutes after Sophie Kohn confesses to her husband, that she had an affair while they were in Cairo, he is and killed. Her former lover, Stan Bertolli , a Cairo-based CIA agent, tries to help her find out why.

UP: How Positive Outlook Can Transform Our Health and Aging by Hilary Tindle is a simple, almost simplistic,  guide to the health benefits of an upbeat outlook on life.  She presents the highlights of good research on the subject, but obscures much of the value by phony, folksy illustrations or quotes from friends, colleagues  and associates.  

The Ballard of a Small Player by Lawrence Osborne follows “Lord Doyle” who is hiding out in Hong Kong, finding solace in alcohol  and losing  his embezzled wealth at the baccarat table. The British lawyer is searching through his past and trying to make sense of the present. At the peak of his gambling addiction,  he meets a prostitute (yes, with a heart of gold) who changes his fortune forever. Good reviews, but too much detail about the food, drink, and gambling in Macau.

*Labor Day by Joyce Maynard is an engaging story of a divorced mother and son whose lives change during a long summer weekend when an escaped convict comes into their house. Labor Day is “a sexy, page turning, poignant story” that “affirms Maynard’s reputation as a master storyteller and shows her to be a passionate humanist with a gifted ear and heart.” 

*Early Decision: Based on a True Frenzy by Lacy Crawford follows five students over one application season as the narrator helps them craft their college essays, cram for the SATs, and perfect the Common Application.  Crawford draws on 15 years of experience as a successful  private college counselor who understands  the madness of  the college admissions application process. The writing is witty and insightful insider's guide to  modern college admissions. It's also a sharp commentary on modern parenting among the rich and famous.

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