Sunday, August 3, 2014

June-July Books

*The Arsonist by Sue Miller is an engaging novel about  family and community tensions when an arsonist begins setting fire to the homes of the summer people in a small New England town. “Suspenseful, sophisticated, rich in psychological nuance and emotional insight,” this book probes themes of aging, belonging, class distinctions,  and community.

*Natchez Burning by Greg Illes grabs your attention and holds it for most of its 800 pages. Penn Cage has been an attorney, successful novelist and recently elected mayor of Natchez .  Now, he must deal with corrupt law enforcement, sociopathic business men, sadistic killers and  a radical  branch of the KKK when his father, a beloved “medical Atticus Finch” is accused of murder.  Illes manages elegantly to tie much of the sordid history of Mississippi racism and the fight for civil rights to this “epic tale” but struggles to tie all the threads together  in the finale.

*Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline finds Molly Ayer  avoiding juvie  by helping an elderly woman, Vivian,  clean out her home. Vivian had been  a young Irish immigrant orphaned in New York City on a train to the Midwest with hundreds of other children whose destinies would be determined by luck and chance. Molly discovers that she has the power to help Vivian find answers to mysteries that have haunted her—and also realizes  that Vivian is a friend and mentor.

*The Happiness Advantage by Shawn Achor is based on Harvard’s most popular undergraduate class.  Achor  spent over a decade living, researching, and lecturing at Harvard University and draws on the growing body of impressive research on the art and science of happiness. The writing style is engaging and the book reads like a popular and well-rehearsed  executive seminar  about  re programing  our brains to become more positive.

The Songs of Willow Frost by Jamie Ford is the disappointing,  anticipated second novel by the author of NYT best seller, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet.  Confined to a Seattle  Orphanage during the Great Depression,  a Chinese-American boy becomes convinced that a movie actress who was forced to give him up is actually his mother. There’s lots of opportunity for pathos, but the characters lack subtlety.

The Art of Social Climbing by Lincoln Kerney is described as “must-have manual for anyone looking to move up and blend into a world of houses, horses, and hired help.” The author knows the world he describes and offers some useful insight about matters of manners and taste, but  doesn’t always follow  his own advice about the dangers of dropping names or bragging.

The Keeper by John Lescroart is a Demas Hardy missing-persons case that gets complicated in a hurry. Hal Chase is a guard at the SF County Jail.  While he’s at SFO,  his wife, Katie, disappears from their home. Hal is soon picked up by police as the prime suspect and later charged with murder. Unfortunately, Hal is having an affair and so was his wife,  so suspects abound.  There’s also something rotten in the Sheriff’s department.  This is not great literature but engaging and fun to read. 

The Apartment by Greg Baxter “follows  an American man and European couple across a blurry, illogical, and frozen city  (Prague or Paris?) into a past the man is hoping to forget.” The book received excellent reviews but was a bit too “blurry and illogical” for my taste.

Suspicion by Joseph Finder  has Boston writer Danny Goodman in over his head after borrowing a large sum of money from a fabulously rich man who is the father of his daughter’s best friend—and maybe part of  a Mexican drug cartel.  The plot is formulaic, but “ so smartly put together, expertly paced and unpredictable that neither Danny's shallowness nor Finder's limitations as a prose stylist keep this from being an irresistible page-turner.”

*The Farm  by Tom Rob Smith ventures  into the almost crowded territory of Scandinavian thrillers, frequently associated with deep, dark family secrets, long-buried crimes and shocking revelations. Smith manages to simultaneously deliver on the  promise of this genre and also provide  insight into apparent paranoia with a psychological complex,  unexpected ending. 

*Looped  by Matthew  Lombardo is a play script based on a real event from 1965  when a boozed-up Tallulah Bankhead needed eight hours to redub—or loop—one line of dialogue from horror flick, 'Die! Die! My Darling!' It is a tough assignment  for poor Danny Miller, who's  been chosen to direct the sound editing session. The setting provides a believable backdrop to showcase the famous life and lines of the irrepressible Tallulah.

The Director by David Ignatius  has former tech entrepreneur Graham Weber as the  director of the CIA trying to save a moribund organization in "the post-Snowden era" of whistle-blowers and cyberterrorism.  Ignatius  writes with great authority on hackers' technology and motivation, as well as the history and culture of the CIA, builds an engaging story, but runs out of steam with a disappointing, unconvincing denouement.

*Summer House With Pool by Herman Koch is “a sly psychological thriller  within a pitch-dark comedy of manners.” As with his previous best seller (The Dinner), Koch tells a sinister tale, filled with ethical dilemmas,  through the eyes of a questionable narrator. Koch's deft and nuanced exploration of gender, guilt, and vengeance  employs sardonic humor to probe how far a person will go in risking his professional reputation and marriage while  still trying to protect his children.

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