Thursday, November 5, 2015

September-October Books

Memory Man by David Baldacci introduces Amos Decker, a former football star with perfect memory who can’t solve his own family's murder. He leaves the police force, loses his home, and winds up on the street, taking PI jobs as they come. After a school massacre, Decker becomes a consultant for the local police and the FBI where he amazes everyone with his keen observation and insight while connecting his own loss with the school shooting. 

The Murderer’s Daughter, by Jonathan Kellerman, “master of the psychological thriller,” introduces Grace Blade to his loyal readers.  Master psychologist by day, seductive adrenaline junkie by night, Grace has a very dark past that unfolds, along plenty of weird characters, violent action, and amazing coincidences in a well-written, but predictable, manner.

Sit! Stay! Speak! by Annie England Noblin is reminiscent of books by Mary Alice Monroe, Allie Larkin, and Holly Robinson. This debut novel tells the modestly interesting story of a Chicago refugee and the rescue dog that helps an outsider in the Ozarks make peace with the past. Quaint southern colloquialisms, a couple of good recipes and a competently written plot make for a pleasant airplane read.

The Killing Lessons by Saul Black was described as having “shockingly good writing.”  I couldn’t disagree more…maybe the worst book I’ve read this year.  Two violent serial killers had (very) bad childhoods and a self-destructive detective who is obsessed with the case, along with victims, past and present, have endless deep, dark internal soliloquies that pass for psychological insight.  Black is a pseudonym for British writer, Glen Duncan, who has every reason to be ashamed to put his real name on this disaster.  How did he get so many writers to give it wonderful reviews?

*Fear of Dying by Erica Jong is a “delightful look at what it really takes to be human and female in the 21st century.” Jong deals with the “afternoon of life” by taking readers through a romp with online hookups, female friendships, children grappling with adulthood and parents negotiating with death. Not on a par with “Flying” but still shows the talent of a major writer.

*Finale: A Novel of the Reagan Years by Thomas Mallon captures the crusading ideologies, blunders, and glamour of the still-hotly-debated Reagan years.  Moving from the political gridiron of Washington, the wealthiest enclaves of Southern California, and Iceland, where the U.S. president engages in two almost apocalyptic days of negotiation with Mikhail Gorbachev. Neither Republicans nor Democrats are spared Mallon’s acerbic, insightful fictional conversations that seem utterly in character with the key political players of the era. 

Between You and Me: Confession of a Comma Queen” by Mary Norris, long-time copy editor for the New Yorker is a clever, chatty review of basic (and arcane) grammar. She addresses those vexing problems in spelling, punctuation, and usage―comma faults, danglers, "who" vs. "whom," "that" vs. "which," compound words, gender-neutral language. Norris concludes, "The dictionary is a wonderful thing, but you can't let it push you around." 

 The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History by Boris Johnson takes on the myths and misconceptions along with the out-sized reality of the man Johnson believes was Great Britain’s greatest leader.  The current mayor of London portrays  with wit, passion, and a bit of hero worship “a man of contagious bravery, breathtaking eloquence, matchless strategizing, and deep humanity.”

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

August Books

*The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown is a NYT bestseller and “an irresistible story about beating the odds and finding hope in the most desperate of times.”  Reminiscent of Unbroken and Dead Wake who also plumb the same era with engaging prose and meticulous historical research, the Boys are  working class students at UWash  who surprise the world by defeating the elite teams of the East Coast, Great Britain, and eventually the best of Hitler’s German athletes. 

H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald is an award-winning UK best-seller about how a young girl became an experienced falconer who copes with grief from the death of her father by training a dangerous goshawk. While providing a little more than I needed about the history and techniques of falconry, there’s a parallel examination of T.H. White's eccentric falconry. A meditation on “Obsession, madness, memory, myth, and history combine to achieve a distinctive blend of nature writing and memoir,” clearly the work of a true British intellectual.

Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee features many of the characters from To Kill a Mockingbird some twenty years later.  Recently ‘discovered’ by her attorney, the book distracts significantly from the reputation of the author (and some of fiction’s favorite characters) while showings that, possessing talent in her twenties, Lee needed (and received with Mockingbird), the firm hand of a good editor. The image of Atticus as a rationalizing racist was too much for me to handle.

**The Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll is a “riveting debut novel” that blends elements of Gone Girl, Harriet Alger and Primates of Park Avenue. Ani is determined to create the perfect life--husband, home, and career--until an incident from the past threatens to unravel everything. Knoll has a keen eye and finely tuned ear for the challenges of competing on Philadelphia’s Main Line or Manhattan’s East Side. 

 *Let’s Be Less Stupid: An Attempt to Maintain My Mental Faculties by Patricia Marx, former writer for SNL and the New Yorker is “equal parts sarcasm, silliness and smarts.” (NPR). Her self-deprecating riffs on memory lapses-- looking for glasses while wearing them or asking, "Who's the guy who isn't Robert De Niro?" --are reminiscent of Nora Ephron's I Remember Nothing and lots of fun for anyone willing to admit that their brain doesn’t function as well as we think it once did.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

July Books

The Angel’s Game by Carlos Ruis Zafó  "takes us into a dark, gothic universe …and creates a breathtaking adventure of intrigue, romance, and tragedy.” Blending deft, evocative writing with a bit of magic realism, Zafón keeps the reader turning pages, but in the end, the truffles don’t make for a satisfying meal.

The Fixer by bestselling author, Joseph Finder, is a story of  a investigative reporter who loses his job, fiancée, and apartment and has to move back and renovate the home of his miserable youth. He finds millions hidden in the walls and sets out to learn the secrets of his comatose father who turns out to have  been a “fixer.”  Finder has written good books, but this isn’t one of them.  If he had taken another six months to edit and revise, this could have been much better.

A Tightly Raveled Mind  by Diane Lawson  is a book that Freud might have liked, but I didn’t.   Dr. Nora Goodman is  a sexy forty-something psychoanalyst with a  handful of one-dimensional, neurotic patients who, like their analyst,  can't seem to allow themselves happiness, love, or success. I liked the descriptions of San Antonio and some of the psychobabble as Lawson  tried to blend crime-solving and psychoanalytic understanding of unconscious mental  processes.

Rise and Fall of Great Powers by Tom Rachman is the disjointed story of Tooly Zylberberg and her Dickensian, peripatetic life. Covering three continents and switching back and forth  over thirty year, the novel left me more confused than the reviewer who gave it high praise. The SF Chronicle called it, “inventive… full of wonderfully quirky, deeply flawed, but lovable characters.”

*The Book Seller by Cynthia Swanson gives Kitty Miller the opportunity to experience both paths in Frost’s “Roads Not Taken.”  She has come to accept her unconventional single life and loves the little bookshop she runs with her best friend, Frieda.  Then, she starts having realistic dreams about a different life involving a great husband, beautiful children and different challenges. Reminiscent of Sliding DoorsThe Bookseller is a delightful and haunting exploration of identity, love and loss. ..written with great style and compassion.”

Blood on Snow by Jo Nesbo was called a “ perfectly pitched thriller" (Sunday Mirror)  Perhaps, but I found it to be a terse, dark, introspective  first person account about the work life and musings of Olav, a contract killer for a ruthless crime boss.  Beneath the murders and other failed criminal efforts, Olav has a heart of gold, if only he didn’t have a bad childhood and dyslexia.  Don’t look for a happy ending.