Saturday, November 5, 2016

September-October Books

*Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance “is a passionate and personal analysis of a culture in crisis that of white working-class Americans.” Vance writes like an insider who escaped Appalachia  and understands the panic that comes from deprivation and fear, but sees his past through the lens of a law degree from Yale. “An unusually timely and deeply affecting view of a social class whose health and economic problems are making headlines in this election year.”

Surrender New York by Caleb Carr, does not meet the standard of his earlier The Alienist. Criminal psychologist Trajan Jones is living in exile on an upstate New York dairy farm after being fired from the NYPD, when he  is asked to investigate the suspicious death of several abandoned kids who nobody seems to miss. The pace is slow, the style is ponderous, the premise hard to believe, but it is still engaging and well-reviewed.

*Commonwealth by Ann Pachent covers five decades and explores how a chance encounter and a stolen kiss reverberates through the lives of the four parents and six children involved. The almost “blended Keating and Cousins children spend summers together and forge a bond based on a shared disillusionment with their parents. There are moments of insight and humor but   is a bit disjointed.

First Comes Love by Emily Griffin got better reviews for this story of two sisters than I thought it deserved.   Meredith grows uncertain about her life with a seemingly perfect husband and daughter while  her once-happily single sister  frantically dates and considers her options to achieve her dream of having a baby. There’s lots of angst but a happy ending that was a bit too predictable.

*Lab Girl by Hope Jahrenm , an acclaimed scientist has built three laboratories in which she's studied trees, flowers, seeds, and soil. Although she tells us a little more about trees than I wanted to know (my bad) she also shares her inspiring life story, in prose that comes from a world class scientist “with the soul of a poet.”

*The Mandibles: a family, 2029-2047 by Lionel Shriver is “a frightening, fascinating, scabrously funny glimpse into the decline that may await the U.S.”  In 2029, the Mandible clan has been counting on a sizable fortune when their 97-year-old patriarch dies. Yet the soaring national debt is so enormous that it is under siege from an upstart international currency, and the dollar is in meltdown. A bloodless world war wipes out the savings of millions of American families and each of the Mandibles must cope with the decline in their own fortunes.  Insightful, clever, thoughtful and just a bit overdone (for me).

Black Widow by Daniel Silva is the continuing saga of Gabriel Allon, art restorer, spy, and assassin, who is about to become the chief of Israel's secret spy service. But a shockingly familiar attack in Paris lures Allon back in the field to eliminate the man responsible before he can strike again. He and his team succeed but not before a massive attach in Washington is largely successful.  Not Silva’s best book, but it is fun reading, better than most and introduces the agent who is likely to be the focal point of future best sellers.

Stuck Up Suit by Vi Keeland and Penelope Ward wasn’t as good as the blurb promised, but it was a funny and sexy “bodice buster.”  Struggling career girl is attached to a handsome, rude guy on the train and picks up his phone when he leaves. When she returns it to his dazzling office, she includes some erotic selfies, he gets in touch and, despite the usual challenges of opposites in a relationship, love prevails.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

August Books

*Before the Fall by Noah Hawley, Emmy Award-winning creator of Fargo, provides a before and after analysis of the mysterious crash of a private jet off Cape Cod. The story of the crew, crash investigators and five wealthy victims of the crash intertwine with the only survivors, a down-on-his-luck painter and a four-year-old boy, with odd coincidences pointing to a possible conspiracy. While engaging, entertaining, and fun, it isn’t great literature.

*Hitman Anders and the Meaning of It All continues Jonas Jonasson’s trademark satirical humor of The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden and The 100-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out of His Window and Disappeared. A disgraced priest, an ex-millionaire's grandson and a recently released murderer form a profitable alliance to defraud gangsters, commercialize a new religion based on generous servings of the sacraments and utilize social media to help Santa become a more profitable enterprise.  “Often laugh-out-loud funny…non-noir Nordic crime fiction to savor”.

*The Unseen World by Liz Moore “winds its way through mystery, heartbreak and mortality with an acute sense of what it means to be human.”  12-year old Ada Sibelius is trying to understand the adult world of technology and her brilliant, socially inept father. When Ada’s father goes missing, she is led down a difficult path to discover his true past –and her own future.

The Nest by   Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney is a debut novel about an upper middle-class, dysfunctional New York family who hope their inheritance (affectionately called the nest) will be dispersed in time to solve the financial problems created by their irresponsibility.  Reviewers loved the book, but many readers, seem to share my impression that the four Plumbs were too rotten and to continue reading until the author could fashion a moderately positive conclusion.

The Trouble with Sheep and Goats by Joanna Canon’s debut novel is a study “of hypocrisy and prejudice in an insightful and compassionate parable” about life in a 1976 British Council Estate. Mrs. Creasy is missing and the Avenue is filled with secrets and whispers that 10-year old Tilly and Grace try to understand in their search to discover God.  Except for the two girls, I didn’t find the characters or narrative as engaging as the professional reviewers.

*Time and Time Again by Ben Elton is an engaging alternative history.     Asked by his former Cambridge Don to use secret correspondence from Isaac Newton about time travel, ex-soldier and adventurer, Hugh Stanton returns to June, 1914, to prevent World War I by stopping an assassination.  Andrew Lloyd Webber says, “An absolute page turner. The historical perspective (both real and imagined) is forensically astute and the narrative thrillingly inventive.”

Thursday, August 4, 2016

July Books

*In the Garden of the Beast: Love Terror and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin by Erik Lawson focuses on 1933, when William E. Dodd becomes America’s first ambassador to Hitler’s Germany. Dodd tries to acclimate to an increasingly violent city where he has to associate with the Nazis while his daughter pursues relationships with Gestapo and Communist officials (among others). Larson is an excellent researcher/writer and the story has disturbing reminders of how evil triumphs.

Italian Shoes by Henning Mankell, author of the Kurt Wallander series, is the story of a lonely old man living alone on an isolated Swedish island. After a self-imposed exile of 30 years, the “winter of discontent” for a disgraced surgeon begins to thaw as he encounters three women whom he has wronged—the lover he abandoned, the daughter he didn’t know about, and the patient he mutilated. “Intense and precisely detailed. . . . A hopeful account of a man released from self-imposed withdrawal.”—The Independent, London

*The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson is a worthy follow-up to her Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand (or Downton Abby), deftly recounts the effect of war on Edwardian sensibilities about gender, money and class. Freethinking Beatrice Nash has been hired to teach Latin at the local grammar school but must cope with provincial, misogynistic laws, mores, and people. “A delightful story about nontraditional romantic relationships, class snobbery and the…complications of living in a small community.” Wash Post)

-The Last Mile is David Baldachi’s second novel about extraordinary detective Amos Decker who can forget nothing. Baldachi is a great writer, but you wouldn’t know it from this book. The characters, coincidences, and conversations are unbelievable.  Various chapters appear to be written by different authors and made me wonder how much Baldachi actually wrote.  Yet, it was a NYTimes best seller and the Washington Post wrote, "It's big, bold and almost impossible to put down.” Go figure.

**Eligible   by Curtis Sittenfeld is a modern retelling of Jane Austen’s classic novel Pride and Prejudice from the author of Prep and American Wife.    The Cincinnati Bennett’s have fallen on hard times, thanks to exorbitant medical bills, reckless spending, and the perpetual underemployment of four of the five Bennett daughters. Liz is the novel’s central character, voice of reason, and the only one holding down a regular job. Yes, after much travail, she does get her Darcy.  Eligible sparkles with Austen-esque wit and intelligence and is a pure pleasure to read.”