Monday, September 4, 2017

July-August Books

*The Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin, bestselling author of The Aviator’s Wife, is historical fiction about the “scandalous, headline-making, and enthralling friendship between literary legend Truman Capote and peerless socialite Babe Paley” and other members of  New York’s high society in mid-20th Century. Like me, you may have missed some of the glamour (and heart-break) of this era.

*Al Franken Giant of the Senate by Al Franken is the story of how an original member of the SNL team gets a chance to serve in the United States Senate, by the narrowest of margins,  and actually turns out to be good at it. Much more insightful and  fun to read than most books by big time politicians. 

*How the Light Gets In by Louise Penny is another mystery set in Three Pines  where Chief Inspector Armand Gamache investigates the disappearance of a woman who was once one of the most famous people in the world and now goes unrecognized. Gamache solves her murder, protects loyal members of the Sûreté du Québec, defends the serenity of his village and finds proof of corruption in high places.  

Camino Island by John Grisham features a young academic who is recruited to help recover priceless F. Scott Fitzgerald manuscripts that were stolen during a daring heist at Princeton.  She befriends several Camino Island authors and the owner of a popular bookstore who also deals in the black market of stolen books and manuscripts. Not Grisham’s best, but still enjoyable light reading.

*The Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz, popular "Masterpiece Mystery” author, gives the reader two excellent British mysteries for the price of one. The first, set in 1950s England, is a whodunit complete with vicar, village, and vengeance. The second, features a modern editor who must solve a murder surrounding that book, as her firm’s fortunes rest upon its success. “This fiendishly brilliant, riveting thriller weaves a classic whodunit worthy of Agatha Christie into a chilling, ingeniously original modern-day mystery.”

*Testimony by Scott Turow has Bill ten Boom, a disillusioned American prosecutor taking an assignment in the Hague to investigate the unsolved disappearance of an entire Gypsy refugee camp during the Bosnian War. He navigates a complex, deceptive environment,  takes testimony from a host of suspects while uncovering disturbing alliances and betrayal. I didn’t agree that  it was Turow’s  “most irresistibly confounding and satisfying novel yet,” but it was engaging, entertaining and educational.

The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper by Phaedra Patrick is a A Man Called Ove wantabe that doesn’t quite make it.  A 69 year old widower finds a charm bracket in his wife’s closet and sets up to discover what he didn’t know about her. Suddenly, he breaks with his rigid routine and begins an odyssey that takes him from London to Paris and as far as India in an epic quest. Described as evoking “whimsy and poignancy,” I found it predicable and a bit saccharine.

*Beartown by Fredrik Backman (A Man Called Ove) is the story of a town collapsing under the burden of unemployment and desperately needing to win the junior ice hockey championship. During a boisterous celebration after an important win, something happens between star player and the coach's daughter that threatens everyone's hopes and illusions.

*The Nature of the Beast is Louise Penny's 11th book featuring Armand Gamache who is failing retirement as chief inspect of the Surete' in a small lidyli8c Quebec village.  When an imaginative local boy is found  dead, Gamache starts looking for clues and finds a gigantic WMD, a complex web of conspiracies and a local serial killer.   Perhaps there are a few too many coincidences, but Penny's novel "peels away the emotional and psychological layers" of the locals while capturing the essence of a beautiful village and life stye despite its proclivity for murder.

*On the Sickle’s Edge by Neville Frankel is a multi generational saga 20th century chronicle of a Jewish family through the rise and fall of the former Soviet Union. The story of the Shtein family spans three continents, and provides a glimpse into how ordinary people lived through turbulent periods of history—similar times but a very different experience from A Gentleman in Moscow.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

June Books

*My Name is Lucy Burton   by Pulitzer Prize winner, Elizabeth Strout, captures the insecurities of having escaped extreme poverty but not some of the hidden scars associated with being different.  A simple hospital visit becomes serious and opens a portal to an unexpectedly tender relationship between an estranged mother and daughter. Potent with distilled emotion. Without a hint of self-pity, Strout captures the ache of loneliness we all feel sometimes.”(Time)

The Book of Joan by Lidia Yuknavitch is a dystopian futuristic novel set in a world that has almost been destroyed by constant wars. Survivors flee to CIEL, a space station where they mutate and become galvanized by a charismatic child-warrior named Joan who possesses mysterious powers and tries to turn CIEL into a quasi-corporate police state.  The NYT called it brilliant and incendiary”. For me, it was too incendiary, depressing and violent.  Okay, call me a Philistine.

*Make Your Bed: Little Things That Can Change Your Life…and Maybe the World by William H. McRaven expands on his 2014 University of Texas commencement address that went viral with over 10 million views to 144 pages.  Admiral McRavel develops ten principles from his training as a Navy Seal and from from people he encountered during his military service who confronted hardship with determination, compassion, honor, and courage.

**Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly is a debut novel inspired by the true story of New York socialite, Caroline Ferriday. The lives of three women intertwine through WWII and converge at the Ravensbruck concentration camp as Caroline becomes increasing involved from her post at the French consulate. Kasia Kuzmerick becomes a courier in the Polish resistance and a subject for medical experiments, while Dr. Herta Oberheuser learns surgery at Ravensbruck. “Smart, thoughtful and just an old-fashioned good read.”

The Romance Reader’s Guide to Life by Sharon Pywell has “Equal parts mystery, romance, and family saga, with a dash of dark comedy.”  Unemployment at the end of World War II leads two sisters to launch a makeup business similar to Mary Kay.  The smart sister uses life lessons she has learned from romance fiction that enable her to cope when the glamorous sister disappears.  

Thursday, June 1, 2017

May Books

*Mississippi Blood by Greg Iles concludes a best-selling trilogy and finds Natchez mayor, Penn Cage, forced to be a spectator as his revered physician father, is tried for murder in the wake of revelations about a mixed-race child and KKK associations. Iles is a great story teller,  but there is just too much here--at 692 pages, too many references to previous books, too many plot twists, too many amazing survival stories and too little nuance in character development...but still a fun read.

**The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds by Michael Lewis describes how Israeli psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky wrote a series of articles challenging assumptions about the decision-making process that won the Nobel prize in economics.  Not Lewis’ best work, but still engaging, informative and insightful.

*The Best of Adam Sharp by Graeme Simseson, best-selling author of The Rosie Project has a 50-year-old man who compares his safe life choices and remembers a youthful affair with an exotic actress.  Then, she contacts him and suggests the possibility of a more exciting life. An engaging read with an excellent sound track (references to songs that fit the occasions of the narrative).

LaRose by National Book Award–winner Louise Erdrich immerses the reader into the tumultuous world of two Native American families bound together by culture and grief. Landreaux accidentally shoots and kills his best friend’s 5-year-old son. He  follows an ancient Ojibwe tradition and gives his own son to the bereaved parents, but complications mount.  The novel shifts between time and alternative realities in a way that made it hard for me to complete-- my bad.