Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Mysteries x 3

Time is short and the holiday chores are piling up so I’ve decided to write short reviews for three books I’ve finished in the last week or so. All are mysteries and have many things in common. This is my go to genre so I read a lot of these stories and I can be fairly critical but I liked each of these books. They have plots that are complex and interesting, characters that are well defined and endings that worked for me. The first two have recurring characters – Kinsey Millhone in V is for Vengeance and Harry Bosch in The Drop. I like the familiarity of these series; I feel like I know these detectives and enjoy the minor characters that recur in the narrative as well. These detectives are always righteous and after the bad guys even if they bend the rules a bit – they are easy to like. The third book – Headhunters – has an unsympathetic and unethical hero that somehow you end up rooting for possibly because the villain in this story is so wacko!

V is for Vengeance by Sue Grafton, Putnam, November 2011 – We reconnect with Kinsey who is working her way alphabetically through the crime in the fictional town of Santa Teresa in California. Kinsey is a reluctant detective who when she interrupts a shop lifting gang is drawn into a complex mystery that includes gangsters, a dirty cop, a lonely senior citizen mourning the loss of his fiancée, and a society woman flirting with danger. Kinsey continues to be Kinsey – not caring about her appearance, continuing her penchant for junk food, drinking bad wine at Rosie's and partaking in her daily jogging routine. The plot is way too complex to summarize but it is as good as any in this enjoyable series.

The Drop by Michael Connolly, Little Brown & Co. November, 2011 – Harry Bosch, the LAPD homicide detective is back and after the bad guys. In the last couple of books he has had this annoying partner, Stephen Chu and he is again in this story. A prominent city hall lawyer (aka fixer) is found dead on the pavement of a plush Hollywood hotel. Was he thrown from the balcony or is it suicide? The dead man is the son of one of Harry’s old enemies, Irvin Irving. At Irving’s request Harry is assigned the case. Concurrently, Harry is investigating a cold case murder of a young woman raped and killed 20 years ago in Venice Beach. Each of these cases takes multiple twists and turns before they are solved. Harry also continues to be Harry – he still likes jazz, he has a new girlfriend in every book (here it is Dr. Hannah Stone), his daughter is a key part of his life and he is hell bent to find out the truth in each case he works. Highly recommended. I listened to the audio book of this story that was read by Len Cariou. Cariou did a good job on the narration but I could not get his Blue Blood character (Henry Reagan) out of my head. I kept picturing Reagan instead of Bosch.

Headhunters by Jo Nesbǿ, Vintage, September, 2011 – This is a Norwegian story that has been translated into English. It is a little quirky. It is first person narrated by the protagonist Robert Brown. Brown is a half Norwegian, half English employee of a headhunting firm responsible for filling most of the executive positions in Norwegian industry. He has a glamorous wife who is an art dealer. They live beyond their means and we slowly come to realize that Brown has a second career as an art thief. He meets his match in Claus Greve, a Dutch executive who Brown courts for a CEO position in Norway. Brown arranges to steal an expensive piece of art from Greve. Greve is not what he seems and Brown soon has the tables turned finding himself running for his life. This story moves right along, it has plenty of black humor and the prose is spare and descriptive. There is at least one plot twist that the author has that I never saw coming. The body count was a little high for me but the violence is contained to one or two scenes. Somehow the author is able to get your sympathy for Brown and I found myself rooting for him to succeed. This book is a standalone mystery, the author Jo Nesbǿ has a series with a detective (Harry Hole) that I’d try after reading this story.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

My Best Books of 2011

This is far and away my favorite post of the year to write.  It gives me the opportunity to look back on some of the great books I read during the past year. I have a tough time selecting the 10 but it is fun to look through the list and remember how much I enjoyed these books.  I try to limit my choices to books published in 2011 (or at least in late 2010).  These are very much personal choices, I've rejected some of the usual suspects from other lists (The Marriage Plot, The Art of Fielding, The Tiger's Wife) in favor of these - what's the fun of having a blog if you can't make your own choices!    Here ya go in alphabetical order:

22 Brittiania Road historical fiction - this WWII survivor story was heartbreaking and at times almost too sad to bear but in the end though it tells of the triumph of human spirit over adversity.

Before I Go to Sleep fiction - A really great psychological thriller, great pacing, great story, had me on the hook until the very end!

Bossy Pants - The Tina Fey story, you have to listen not read this one, her memoir is part comedy, part life advice, part assessment of social mores and all fun.

Buddha in the Attic  historical fiction -  this story of Japanese mail order brides is a haunting piece of historical fiction told in a unique way.

Catherine the Great biography - This 600 page biography of one of the most powerful rulers of Russia flew by for me. If you want history that reads like fiction read this!

Destiny of the Republic history - In this gripping account of the murder of James Garfield, 20th President of the US, Candice Millard uses the assassination as a means to examine the culture and politics of America in the 1880s. A great read!

Rules of Civility historical fiction - Pre WWII high society NYC has never seemed as alive as in this story. If you want to visit another time, another place that is both romantic and sophiscated read this book.

Faith fiction - The Catholic Church sexual abuse scandal with a different twist, the author gets the characters pitch perfect and gives a different view of this sad story.

The Report historical fiction - a fictionalized account of a true story this is a small gem of a book that raises issues that are very contemporary in a way that is both thought provoking and moving.

A Visit From the Goon Squad fiction - These characters walk off the page into your mind if not exactly your heart. The effects of the passage of time on the characters, their values and relationships is the overarching theme in this unconventional but amazing novel.

I need to mention two other books I read last year even though they weren't 2011 books.  Matterhorn (2010), a fictional account of the Vietnam war was one of the best war stories  I've ever read.  Karl Malantes captures it all - the horror, the courage, the cowardice, the camaraderie, the confusion, the exhilaration and the sorrow of war.  Even if you don't read war stories read this one.    Zeitoun (2009) is a true story of one family's experience during and after Hurricane Katrina.  David Eggers hits a home run with this book, I loved it.

Monday, December 12, 2011

The Cat's Table

The Cat's Table
 by Michael Ondaatje, October 2011, Knopf, Inc.

This is a beautifully written book with indelible images that in the end did not fulfill the promise of its opening.

The Cat’s Table is a coming of age novel. In it the narrator, Michael an 11 year old boy tells the story of his solo ship voyage from Ceylon to England in the early 1950s. Michael is seated at the Cat’s table, the table lowest in status and farthest from the captain’s table. He makes two friends, Cassius and Ramadhin, and their ship board adventures make for the most interesting parts of the book. The story is rich with eccentric characters. A musician, Mr. Mazappa, after teaching them obscene lyrics to songs sets them off on their adventures. Mr. Daniels has transformed a lower level of the ship into a botanical garden; a strange Australian girl roller skates the deck of the ship early each morning; a prisoner is kept below deck and only taken out for midnight walks; a thief with Michael’s help invades first class cabins and steals; a group of acrobats and a deaf girl add to the mystery; Miss Lasqueti has a mysterious background and travels with a crate of carrier pigeons, Sir Hector deSilva a wealthy passenger who is quite ill and perhaps has had a spell cast on him.

The author brings each of these characters in and out of the narrative as the voyage slowly takes place and the plot coalesces. Many of the events the boys don’t quite understand at the time but come to understand later in life -“Over the years, confusing fragments, lost corners of stories, have a clearer meaning when seen in a new light, a different place." The first half of this novel which is set on the ship is very strong. There is a great sense of time and place conveyed in the words. The whimsy and wonder that they boys have in their explorations is palpable. As with most of Ondaatje’s writing the metaphors abound, starting with the voyage itself as a symbol of the passage from childhood to adulthood and the Cat’s table as a symbol for the left behind and forgotten. For me, when the story left the voyage and went into future events it lost much of its energy. This is a beautifully written book with images that are indelible, at times I stopped to reread a paragraph so I could savor the scene that was described, and it just seemed to come alive on the page. In the end though I did not think this story fulfilled the promise of the beginning and ended on a weak note.

I read a copy of this book borrowed from The Free Library of Philadelphia

Thursday, December 8, 2011

The Kitchen House

The Kitchen House by Katherine Grissom, narrated by Orlagh Cassidy and Bahni Tupin, Audible Audio, May 2010, 12 hours, 55 minutes

...if you like well researched historical fiction and a yarn with lots of going on you’ll enjoy this one

The Kitchen House is set in colonial Virginia, 1790-1810. It tells the story of a young Irish girl, Lavinia, daughter of indentured servants who died on the voyage from Ireland. She is taken to a rural plantation and left to be raised by the slaves on the plantation. She is given elevated status and works in the kitchen house preparing meals for the white family (the Pikes) who own the plantation. Taken under the wing of Belle, black daughter of Captain Pike, Lavinia becomes part of the black community on the farm, going so far as to call them “her family”.

The story is told in alternating voices of Belle and Lavinia. It is a good historical tale. It shows the cruelty and hardships faced by the slaves, the hopelessness of their lives. It touches on the difficulty of life in general during this time. Infant mortality was the rule rather than the exception and both the slaves and the plantation mistress lose children to accidents and disease. When Captain Pike dies and his wife Miss Martha succumbs to mental illness, Lavinia is taken to Williamsburg to live with Miss Martha’s sister. She yearns to return to the plantation and the people she grew up with. Things take off from there and I’ll not try to recap this busy novel here.
I had somewhat mixed feelings about this story. It is a page turner, you really want to know what happens to these characters but it was a little too much of a soap opera for me. It has all the requisite elements of soap – rape, child abuse, murder, lynchings, polygamy and drug abuse. Many of the characters are stereotypical and not complex– the plantation overseer, the wastrel son, the kindly black mother, the too good to be true neighbor. The author does have a tendency to summarize events rather than show them which is a little disconcerting. Despite this I did enjoy this story.

So in summary if you like well researched historical fiction and a yarn with lots of going on you’ll enjoy this one, if you are looking for a more complex telling of plantation life and slave/master relationships there are other choices - March by Geraldine Brooks or The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman by Earnest Gaines come to mind.

I listened to the audio edition of this story. Orlagh Cassidy read the Lavinia role and she was excellent. The very talented Bahni Turpin read Belle and she was also excellent. For me, I think listening to the story was better than reading it. The voices gave a dimension to these characters that I don’t think would have been there for me on the page.

Friday, December 2, 2011

The Likeness

The Likeness
by Tana French, Viking Adult, July 2008

...great characters and sense of place, weak plot!

The Likeness is the second Tana French mystery set within the Murder Squad in Dublin. I had previously read the first (Into the Woods) and the third (A Faithful Place). Each story is only loosely connected to the other and can be read in any order. French’s characters are the antithesis of hard boiled detectives. We come to intimately know her detectives. Her writing style is emotional and she has the ability to craft a real psychological thriller. In The Likeness, the narrator and main character is Cassie Maddox, a Dublin detective who has worked undercover in the past. When a girl (Lexie) is murdered who looks identical to Maddox, the police decide to withhold news of the murder and recruit Maddox to take the murdered girl’s place. In the undercover role Maddox works herself successfully into the house where four house mates live. The author is able to make this strange group of doctoral students alive and likeable. The emotional tension in the story increases as Maddox steps further into the life of Lexie and her housemates as she investigates the murder.

There were things I loved about this story – French’s ability to create realistic, likeable people and places, the authentic feel you get about the relationships among the characters, and the really wonderful prose that this author can produce. But this story hit my tipping point for improbable events. You are asked to believe six impossible things before breakfast – that friends as close as this group were would not detect an imposter, that Maddox would withhold important information relevant to the case from her supervisor, that an iterant traveler such as Lexie could waltz into a doctoral program and be successful. Ok maybe that’s only three things but for me they were very distracting.

In summary – great characters and sense of place, weak plot!

I read a copy of this book borrowed from The Free Library of Philadelphia.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight

 Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood  by Alexandra Fuller, narrated by Lisette Lecat, Audible Books, 9hrs, 57 mins. December, 2003.                                                                        Her choice not to re-write her family history, to be so honest and truthful, makes this unsentimental story one worth reading. 
This is the story of a white, poor farming family in colonial Africa as independence comes to the native populations in the 1970-80s. It is one strange story, told from the view of a young girl as she grows up in Rhodesia, Malawi and finally Zambia. The author, Alexandra Fuller, gives a searingly honest accounting of her family history. Her parents clearly racist (“...if only one country could have remained under white rule things would have been so much better.”) are dysfunctional in many ways. Her mother, later diagnosed as bipolar, is a barely functioning alcoholic; her father, while humorous and certainly the more present parent is also alcoholic. Their neglect is hard to read about and even harder to understand.

What does come through loud and strong in this story is the difficulty of the life they lead. Malaria, mosquitoes, too many leopards to count, the death of three of the authors siblings are all recounted in a matter of fact way that speaks to the everyday hardships that are faced in Central Africa. To illustrate how different the author’s childhood was think on this one - at the age of nine years old she was taught how to clean, load and shoot an Uzi machine gun during the colonial war in Rhodesia.

One wonders why this family would continue in this harsh land and I think the author gives some clues to this in the story. She clearly considers Africa her home, her descriptions of the land its flora and fauna are vivid and captivating.

I had very mixed feelings about this book, I think in many cases you won’t like what you are reading. The author’s honesty delivers an unflattering portrait of a very dysfunctional family, but the author’s love for her family, her gentle acceptance of her parent’s alcoholism and neglect are oddly affecting. Her matter-of-fact recounting of the horrors of the colonial wars seen through a child’s eyes is memorable. Her choice not to re-write her family history, to be so honest and truthful, makes this unsentimental story one worth reading.

I listened to this story as an audio book and thought the reader, Lisette Lecat, did an excellent job. She was able to differentiate the author’s voice from childhood through to a young adult.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Marriage Plot

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides, Farrar, Straus and Giroux October 2011
 "...a weak story well told"

For me The Marriage Plot was my most anticipated book of the year. I had read Eugenides earlier works (Middlesex, Virgin Suicides) and loved them. I went to hear the author read from his work and answer questions at the Free Library session he conducted. All of this anticipation I think added to my disappointment with this story.

The setting for the novel is the Brown University campus in 1982. There are three central characters – Madeline, an indulged rich girl is a Literature major who loves the works of the great Victorian novelists (Eliot, James, etc.); Leonard is a brilliant biology major who has bipolar disease; Mitchell an idealist majoring in religious studies rounds out the trio. The story opens on graduation day. Madeline and Leonard have been lovers but have separated. On the way to graduation Madeline finds out that Leonard has been hospitalized for his bipolar disorder, she skips graduation joins him at the hospital and begins a period that ends up with her marriage to him a year later. Mitchell has been in love with Madeline (or an idealized version of her) since freshman year but his love is unrequited. The story is told in three parts from each of their view points. 
Let me first concentrate on what I liked about this novel. Eugenides is able to create genuine characters that have a real depth to them. The sections where Leonard’s mental illness is depicted were excellent. He described the lithium effects on Leonard’s personality and he gives real understanding to the depression that he suffers from. I read these parts and was sure that Eugenides must have had firsthand experience with mental illness to write this well. Leonard is the most developed of the characters; we get his back story of family problems and have a real understanding of his personality. Mitchell is also a well done character, he is the seeker of truth and beauty in the trio, even his idealism rings true for a 22 year old. His trip to work at Mother Teresa’s hospital in India (something Eugenides did) and his eventual dawning that he is not meant to become a religious mystic again rings true in the telling. I also liked the way Eugenides was able to describe the places where the novel occurred. The Brown campus, the genetics laboratory and the upper class New Jersey society all were worlds that were lush with detail and alive to the reader.

There were a number of things I did not like about this novel. I thought that the number of literary and philosophical references (some of which I understood, most of which probably passed me by), were too clever and in the end pretentious and distracting from the story. I really didn’t care for any of the characters, Leonard was narcissistic to the point of annoyance – I know, I know he was mentally ill – but it didn’t make him any more likeable. Madeline, like Mitchell was an idealist, but she seemed to also be self absorbed and really didn’t show much character growth. I was never able to understand what she saw in Leonard. Mitchell was the best of them, but again not enough for me to care about. Lastly, I thought the story lacked tension, probably because toward the end I had only a mild interest in the fate of these characters.

This novel is not Eugenides best effort. He is a fine writer who is erudite, witty and clever but that isn’t enough to carry this novel – a weak story well told.
I read a copy of this book that I purchased.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Destiny of the Republic

Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicne and Murder of a President by Candice Millard, Random House Audio, September 2011, narrated by Paul Read, 9 hours, 47 minutes.

It is the best kind of history to read -engrossing and all encompassing without been dry or stilted in anyway

In this gripping account of the murder of James Garfield, 20th President of the US, Candice Millard uses the assassination as a means to examine the culture and politics of America in the 1880s. My guess is if you remember anything at all about Garfield from US history it is that he was assassinated by a “disappointed office seeker”. Millard clears that one up early; he was killed by a man who was seriously mentally ill, certainly way more than disappointed.
We are treated to an examination of the US society fifteen years after the end of the Civil War. In 1880 the politicians are divided between those who support the spoils system (winners get to name their friends and supporters to federal offices) and those who are looking to reform the system into a meritocracy. Garfield is among the latter. Garfield was a poor son of an Ohio farmer who had worked to get himself a classical education. After service in the Union Army where he rose in the ranks to become a general officer he has won the US presidency through an unlikely series of events. After reading this story I am convinced that Garfield could have been a great president if he’d lived. He was certainly a top notch guy – well rounded, courageous, ethical, funny, empathic and intelligent

Garfield’s assassin, Charles Guiteau, receives almost as much background as Garfield himself. The author recounts Guiteau’s descent into mental illness. His unsuccessful marriage, his inability to hold a job, his chronic indebtedness and his delusions are all laid out. The parts of this story about Guiteau are downright scary and read like a thriller as he slowly moves toward the assassination.

Millard has a great gift in her ability to describe what it was like in the 1880s. One of the things that got my attention was that the president of the US, everyday had office hours where anybody (!) could make an appointment and meet with him. You just came to the White House, sat in the anteroom and waited to be seen. No security, little or no screening – amazing and this was only 130 years ago! In fact Garfield had spoken to Guiteau at least twice prior to the assassination. Garfield was shot at the train station in DC where he had gone accompanied only by his friend the Secretary of State, to board a train to vacation with his family at the Jersey shore.

The medical drama ensues after Garfield is shot. Antiseptic techniques have not been accepted by the majority of US physicians. Joseph Lister attended the Centennial celebration in Philadelphia and described his success with asepsis; he was ridiculed by the most eminent surgeons in the US. Garfield’s wounds were survivable; the bullet he took did not hit any major organs. He was most probably infected by the medical staff who continually probed his wound with unsterilized hands and instruments. He lived for 10 weeks as he slowly and painfully succumbed to overwhelming infection. The battles that took place between the arrogant physician in charge of his care (William Bliss) and younger colleagues who understood wound infection are all documented. This tragedy plays out almost in slow motion and really is heart breaking.

My review really doesn’t do justice to how good this book is. In an effort not to make the review too long I’ve left out lots of things that add to the richness of this story. It is the best kind of history to read -engrossing and all encompassing without been dry or stilted in anyway. If you read history or even if you don’t, don’t miss this one!
I listened to the audio edition and Paul Read was a good narrator, although some of the female dialogue he read was breathy and a little strange.

I listened to a copy of this story I bought from audible.com

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Catherine The Great

Catherine The Great: Portrait of a Woman
 by Robert K. Massie, Random House, November 2011

Massie really can write history that reads like fiction.

Massie has taken the well know story of Catherine and written a highly readable Russian history. Catherine, whose baptismal name was Sophie was a teenager when she was brought to Russia by Empress Elizabeth to become the wife of Grand Duke Peter, heir to the Russian throne. When Sophie arrived she was unable to speak Russian, knew nothing of the customs and was directed to convert to the Orthodox religion from her German Lutheranism. She took the Russian name Caterina. Catherine’s marriage was deeply unhappy and the union remained unconsummated for 10 years. During that time she educated herself in all things Russian and worked to give herself a classical education corresponding with Voltaire, Grimm and Diderot. Catherine did produce a son but no one thought that Peter was the father. Evidently this was an unimportant detail in 18th century Russia. Her son Paul was recognized as a member of the royal family and in line for the throne.

When Peter finally came to the throne his reign was short and dysfunctional. In a coup he was removed from the throne and Catherine declared Empress. In 1762 she began her 35 year rule of Russia. She reigned with compassion and intelligence. She worked to improve medicine in Russia, becoming the first to be inoculated against smallpox and ensuring the vaccine was available in Russia. She amassed a collection of European art that even today is unrivaled. She instituted a legal code and extended the boundaries of the empire to borders that stood until 1991. She built schools and orphanages and developed curricula that provided for a broad education for those lucky enough to get schooling.

Catherine’s personal life was also fascinating. Massie identifies over 10 men who were her lovers. She was passionate in all aspects of her personal life. In addition to ensuring her lovers had a pretty face she looked for intellectual stimulation. She was serially monogamous. Her most serious and long standing relationship was with Gregory Potemkin. Massie postulates but doesn’t prove that Catherine and Potemkin were married. They remained lifelong friends and allies. She enabled him to essentially rule southern Russia, developing the city of Odessa to give Russia a port on the Black Sea.

This 600 page story flew by for me. Massie really can write history that reads like fiction. Strongly recommended for those who love history!

I read a copy of this novel supplied by the Amazon Vine program

Friday, October 21, 2011

Night Circus

Night Circus
by Erin Morgenstern, Random House Audio, narrated by Jim Dale, 13hrs, 39 min., September 2011

 What I usually have trouble with in the magical realism genre (all of the descriptions and an unbelievable story) I liked here, it was the characters that fell short for me.

Spoilers ahead
Night Circus is the latest novel aimed at the adult Harry Potter fans. It is the story of two magicians, Celia and Marco, who are engaged in a lifelong challenge. They do not know the rules of the challenge and they do not know how it will end. Their patrons (Prospero and Alexander) have created a circus as a stage for their challenge. Celia travels with the circus, Marco works his magic from afar. The story is told primarily from the two magicians' perspectives but other characters from the circus and the circus supporters (rêveurs) give their views of the story. Against the odds Celia and Marco fall in love. The story continues over a number of years as they enhance the circus with new tents magically produced. There are a number of minor characters; Poppet and Widget twins born on the day the circus opens; Tsukiko the contortionist who can bend her body into a small glass bottle, the Burgess sisters Scottish supporters of the circus and finally Bailey the young man who eventually saves the circus. The conclusion of the novel wraps up in a satisfying way all of the many narratives in this story.

There were things about this novel that I absolutely loved. The quality of the imagery was outstanding, the authors ability to describe the circus was superb, both beautiful and sensory. The plot of this novel was imaginative yet in a strange way quite believable. I had no trouble signing on to believing in this story (often a problem for me in books like this).

What I did not like about this book was the character development or lack thereof. Of the two main characters I found Celia fairly one dimensional and Marco in particular not very likeable. Early in the novel Marco throws over his girlfriend Isobel without even a care to her feelings and then his behavior towards Chandresh, a man who has proved for him most of his life is really despicable in an attempt to achieve his ends. I was happier with some of the character development of the minor characters, the clockmaker is well drawn, the twins also and finally Bailey I found to be the most interesting. He is one of the few characters who seems to express free will and shows growth over time.

So unfortunately I can’t join the chorus of exuberant reviews for this novel. What I usually have trouble with in the magical realism genre (all of the descriptions and an unbelievable story) I liked here, it was the characters that feel short for me.

I think this would make an excellent film. I never read The Wizard of Oz but I believe that it is probably a better movie than a book, I have the same thought here – this story would be a better film experience.

I listened to the audio version of this novel read by Jim Dale of Harry Potter fame. Dale was excellent in his narration. The non sequential timeline made listening instead of reading a challenge. If you missed the date at the beginning of the chapter you struggled a bit to place the events within the story. Perhaps better to read than listened to.

I listened to a copy of this story I bought at audible.com

Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Girl Who...

by Steif Larrson, Knopf, 2009, 2010

I realize I may be the last person in the western world to read these mysteries. I read the first novel in the trilogy (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) when it was published in English. I enjoyed it but was left wondering what the buzz was about this series. I recently read the last two and I have the same reaction. These are good mysteries no doubt, but in my mind not to the level of best stories from P.D.James, Michael Connolly or even Tana French.

Spoilers ahead. The last two books are in reality one story that deals with Lisbeth Salander’s life. In Dragon Tattoo she is introduced as a fairly quirky character but we don't learn much of her life story. In these stories we are told about her KGB defector father and the cruelty of her early life. The kid couldn’t get a break and things aren’t improving for her here. She is wrongly accused of the murders of an investigative journalist and his partner who were in the process of exposing a sex trafficking ring. While most of Sweden believes her guilty she is assisted only by Blomkvist and a loyal group of supporters. In Fire the action centers on the chase to catch Salander and convict her of the murders, ending the story with her shot in the head after a violent confrontation with her father and a previously unknown half brother. Hornet’s Nest picks right up where Fire stopped. The key story line here is the cover-up within the Swedish Secret Police that allowed Salander’s father to operate with impunity as a criminal in Sweden. This story is the weakest of the three. There are pages upon pages that attempt to explain the Swedish government system of checks and balances or lack thereof. There is no end to administrative steps that go on as Blomkvist et al attempt to roll up the Secret Police cabal who are responsible for Salander’s troubles. Within the Secret Police there isn't a strong villian character to focus on.  Salander is in either the hospital or in jail throughout the entire story so there is way less action in this novel. There are some side stories in this one that help a bit with the lack of action in the main event but not enough in my opinion.

So I’d say if you read mysteries and thrillers you should probably read this trilogy. Tattoo was far and away the best, Fire was decent but Hornet’s Nest was a yawner for me. The English language version of Dragon Tattoo (Michael Craig as Blomkvist, Rooney Mara as Salander) will be released by Sony Pictures in December of this year. I bet that only adds to the hype that these books have received. Can’t figure it out!

I read copies of these novels borrowed from The Free Library of Philadelphia.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Buddha in the Attic

 Buddha in the Attic
by Julie Otsuka, Knopf, August 2011

It is a short book, just over 100 pages but it is both haunting and heartbreaking

This is the story of Japanese mail order brides who came to the US in the first twenty years of the twentieth century. The author has chosen a unique way to tell their story. Instead of concentrating on one or several of these women she has chosen to tell the story in a plural voice. This story is overwhelmingly sad and it wouldn’t take much to push their experience into a sensationalist saga. She conveys the strangeness of the new land, the homesickness felt by these women and the language barriers they faced. Just when these women have formed an attachment to the new land and have raised children who are now strangely to them so American, all of the Japanese are taken to the internment camps. Certainly a unique immigrant story, but must read American history.

Otsuka’s writing style is straightforward and quite elegant in its simplicity. Few characters in the novel are named, I’m sure in an effort to show the anonymity of these women. Many of the paragraphs read like chants which only add to the mystic of the story. It is a short book, just over 100 pages but it is both haunting and heartbreaking. Every immigrant group from the Pilgrims to the present day refugees has their unique story; these women are well served in the telling of theirs.

I read a review copy of this novel provided by the publisher

Saturday, October 1, 2011

When She Woke

When She WokeWhen She Woke by Hillary Jordan, Algonquin Books, October 2011

I believe that people will either love or hate this book

This one had my attention from the first page. It is a dystopian look at a U.S. theocracy in the not too distant future. The lead character Hannah Payne, a young woman devoted to her family and her Christian faith has been convicted of murder. The victim is her unborn child that she has aborted. Hannah had an illicit love affair with an influential minister and bore his child. In these new United States prison is reserved for the only a few hard core inmates, most criminals are punished by chroming. The inmates’ skin is treated so that it is a bright color, red for murders, yellow and green for lesser offenses. The criminals are then released into the general population to fend for themselves. As this story open Hannah wakes to find her skin bright red.

Hannah has chosen not to identify the father of the child so she is left to face her life as a ”red” essentially alone. In this fast paced novel Hannah deals with all of the difficulties of being shunned and ostracized. After a short stint in a dismal, cruel, half way house Hannah and her newly acquired friend Kayla attempt to escape their fate. The story is well conceived and well told. The details about a country where the separation of church and state is no more are credible. As interesting is the journey Hannah takes spiritually trying to reform her beliefs and reconcile herself to the loss of her family, her lover and the life she has known and then embrace a new more independent path.

I believe that people will either love or hate this book. The author does pursue a pro choice agenda that will surely turn off some readers. I found the story fairly balanced though. While there were plenty of right wing Christian zealots, there were also some true Christians – Hannah’s father, and a sensitive Episcopalian minister among them. I am sure many readers will note the similarities to The Scarlet Letter, The Handmaid’s Tale and Children of Men but I thought the author did a credible job of creating a richly detailed setting for her story. The pacing is excellent and the tension she creates as Hannah attempts to flee is quite good. Maybe not the best book I’ve read recently but I enjoyed it and read it almost straight through without a break.

I read a copy of this book I received through the Amazon Vine program. 

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Giveaway Winner!

Margaret at hotmail is the winner of the Portrait of a Spy audio CDs.  I've emailed her but the email has bounced back.  Please get in touch and reconfirm your email address.

Saturday, September 24, 2011


by William Boyd, Macmillian Audio, 10 hrs, 20 mins, narrated by Rosamund Pike, October, 2006

...good writing, interesting characters and great plot.

Restless is a different type of spy story. It is historical fiction rather than a shoot ‘em up international thriller. William Boyd, the author has a great track record of writing elegant fiction with varied settings (Any Human HeartAn Ice Cream War). This story, set in the years leading up to WWII is a good one. The main character, Eva Delectorskaya is a Russian émigré living in Paris in the 1930s. Thirty years later she reluctantly tells her up until then secret life story to her daughter Ruth.

Spoilers Ahead   Her story -after her brother is killed working for a British spy agency she is recruited into a special branch of the same service. Her boss, Lucas Romer soon becomes her lover. Their group is charged with manipulating stories in the media that will give the UK an advantage in the war against the Nazis. In New York, the group cleverly plants media stories that will encourage the US to enter the war on Britain’s side. These British efforts at propaganda aimed at manipulating US public opinion were not anything that I had previously read about and I found quite interesting. The story setting moves from Paris, to Brussels, to London and finally New York. The author gives quite a bit of period detail that greatly enriches the telling. After an encounter in New Mexico with German agents, Eva realizes that she had been betrayed. When a colleague is murdered, she flees the US and goes into hiding assuming a new identity.

Interspersed with the WWII tale are scenes from the daughter’s life as an Oxford PhD candidate and single mother. These sections add nothing to the story. The daughter’s life is boring in contrast to her mother’s narrative and actually just plain boring.

The denouement was excellent. The author manages to keep this tale exciting right up until the end. I strongly recommend this historical spy tale – good writing, interesting characters and great plot.

I listened to an audio version (borrowed) narrated by Rosamund Pike who was outstanding.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Portrait of a Spy - Review and Giveaway

Portrait of a SpyPortrait of a Spy by Daniel Silva, Harper Audio, 11 hrs, 32 mins, July 2011

...every bit as good as the earlier books in this series

This will be perhaps the third or fourth thriller in this series that I’ve reviewed so I won’t write a lengthy review of this novel. Let me just say that it is every bit as good as the earlier books in this series. Daniel Silva through his lead character Israeli spy Gabriel Allon does a fantastic job of educating the reader about Mideast politics, rivalries and factional fighting. So often his stories have a real ripped from the headlines feel. This one is particularly topical dealing with terrorist attacks in London and the US. Allon’s adversaries are a post Bin Laden terrorist group centered in Yemen; he is assisted by a progressive billionaire Saudi woman, Nadia al-Bakari who quietly is trying to improve conditions for women in the Mideast. All of the familiar characters from earlier Silva novels are present, Allon’s wife Chiara, British gallery owner Julian Isherwood, the complete Mossad team, Allon’s mentor Shamron and the principals from US and UK intelligence. The plotting is intelligent and tight, the writing is first-rate and the characters are realistic. Silva doesn’t shy from sharing his feelings about rights and wrongs in the Mideast – the treatment of women and minorities in the Mideast (wrong), the tepid US support for Israel (wrong), the Saudi financing of terrorist groups (wrong), the support of Israel among the Western intelligence agencies (right).

If you’ve enjoyed Silva’s earlier novels you will like this one, if you haven’t read any novels in this international spy series this one can stand alone as a satisfying read. I listened to the audio version of this thriller and for me it was quite a different experience than reading it. Simon Vance did a first-rate job narrating, he was able to give voice to a myriad of accents that really gave the story a theatrical feel. I would be hard pressed to compare the experience of listening v. reading this story. Both are enjoyable just different!

I would offer the audio edition of this novel that I received from the publisher as a giveaway. Rules are in the box to the right of this review. Giveaway ends September 28.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Rin Tin Tin: The Life and Legend

Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend
Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend
by Susan Orlean, Simon & Schuster, September, 2011

...Well researched and well written, thankfully the dogs carry the story

My only memories of Rin Tin Tin (RTT) are from the 1950s. It was a never to be missed Friday night TV show that in our house included the entire family, my best friend and TV Time popcorn. We lined up as the bugle called us to report and we faithfully watched Rusty, Rinty and Lt. Masterson overcome the trials of life on a Western army fort (Yo Rinty!). Who knew that RTT had a fascinating story that started on the battlefields of WW1.  In this in depth telling of the life and legend of the dog (s) Susan Orleans gets the story. Interspersed with personal recollections from her life she leads us on a fascinating journey through the twentieth century.

The original RTT was born in France on a battlefield and rescued by an US Army private, Lee Duncan. Working through what must have been considerably less red tape than today Duncan was able to get the dog shipped to his southern California home. Duncan, taciturn and in many ways unknowable trained the dog and secured for him parts in the rapidly growing film industry. The author gives a full picture of Hollywood in the 1920s. I had no idea of the wide influence movies had in the 20’s and 30’s. To quote one of many statistics in the story 100 million movie tickets were sold weekly in a country with a population of 150 million people – everyone went to the movies! And in the late 20’s before talkies everyone went to see RTT movies. RTT and Duncan would travel the country appearing at theaters, hospitals, and civic events. In Houston 10,000 people attended a RTT appearance! So the TV show that all of us boomers watch in the 50’s had its beginnings with our parents in the movie culture of their generation.

The author does a comprehensive job of describing all aspects of this story. The origination of the German Sheppard breed in pre WWI Germany, the training of the dogs for use in war by the Nazis, the movement from dogs as working farm animals to domestic pets, the evolution of dog shows in the US, the efforts of the US to quickly develop a canine corps at the start of WWII are all side stories supporting the main narrative and many of them are wildly interesting. Good thing too because the major human characters in this story are not interesting. Lee Duncan was a one dimensional man more interested in dogs than in wives, children, other people, etc. Bert Leonard, the RTT producer responsible for much of the RTT programming was a similarly uninteresting character. Thankfully the dogs can carry this story, the original RTT and his assorted namesakes and offspring were iconic symbols for several generations of Americans.

This book is hard to characterize, part autobiographical by Orleans, part a social history of the US in the twentieth century and part man loves dog biography. Well researched and well written this book reads like an extended New Yorker (for which Orleans writes regularly) non-fiction article. I enjoyed this book and had no trouble skipping some of the latter parts of the story that dragged along.

I read a copy of this book provided by the publisher.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Giveaway Winner!

Heather L. is the winner of the Harlen Coben novel shelter.  She has been  notified and has 48 hours to contact me.  Thanks to all who participated.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Shelter - Review and Giveaway

Shelter: A Mickey Bolitar NovelShelter: A Mickey Bolitar Novel by Harlan Coben, Putnam, September 2011

Mystery lovers of all ages enjoy!

Shelter is published as a teen novel, but I thought it was a pretty good adult read. Harlen Coben introduced Mickey Bolitar in Live Wire and now gives him his own story. He is a bright, energetic, high school student who is having a really bad year. He has witnessed his father’s death and is now dealing with his mother’s drug addiction. Forced to live with his uncle Myron he starts the school term by meeting an enchanting girl, Ashley, who quickly becomes his girlfriend. Just as quickly she goes missing without a trace. Working with some quirky new friends he has made at school Mickey tries to find Ashley. He uncovers a conspiracy and along the way finds out some things that cause him to question his father’s death.

The writing is good, the wry humor that Coben is noted for is fully present and actually sounds realistic coming from a teenage boy. The plotting is also good; the action moves right along. I think this will be a successful series for Coben and will bring new young readers to the mystery genre. Mystery lovers of all ages enjoy!

I am happy to giveaway my gently used copy of the novel.  Follow the rules posted to the right of review.  Giveaway ends September 9, 2011

I read an advanced reader copy provided by the publisher.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Shut Your Eyes Tight

Shut Your Eyes Tight (Dave Gurney, No. 2): A NovelShut Your Eyes Tight (Dave Gurney, No. 2): A Novel  by John Verdon, Crown Publishing, July, 2011

...the plotting was complex and engrossing but at 500+ pages it is just too long

Shut Your Eyes Tight is the second novel to feature Dave Guerney, the highly decorated, retired NYPD detective now living in upstate New York. Guerney is enticed into an investigation where a bride has been beheaded at her wedding reception. The obvious suspect is nowhere to be found and the police investigation is stalled. Guerney is hired by the victim’s mother to investigate the murder. Guerney uncovers clues that the police have overlooked and the investigation focuses on sex crimes, a sex procurement business and a school for young sexual predators.

I thought the mystery element of this book was very satisfactory. The plotting was complex and engrossing and the denouement was quite good. The story really needs better editing though, and at 500+ pages it was just too long. Many passages share the detective’s thoughts and doubts and really doesn’t advance the story. The other disappointment I had was Guerney’s personal life didn’t progress at all. He still has a poor relationship with his son, if the author is not going to develop this side story just leave it out of the book. He still has a poor relationship with his wife. I found the passive/aggressive wife to be a very inconsistent character, again not really well developed or very appealing. I think the author needs to jettison all of his personal life if he can’t do a better job developing it in subsequent books.

So in summary, this book doesn’t improve on the promising debut novel Think of A Numb3r but I’ll probably read the next in the series in hopes that this author can sharpen his writing.

I read a copy of this novel that I received through the Amazon Vine program.

Friday, August 26, 2011


by J. Courtney Sullivan, Narrated by Ann Marie Lee, Random House Audio, 17 hrs, 20 min., June 2011

Just say no to this one

This is the story of a very dysfunctional Irish-American family who just happen to have a family home in Maine. I was interested to read it after a number of bloggers reviewed and liked it. The story is told from the perspective of four women in the family – Alice the 83 year old matriarch, Anne Marie, the daughter-in-law, Kathleen the daughter, and Maggie, Kathleen’s daughter. The book is a character driven family saga that really doesn’t have much of a plot. Each character gives her view on family events. What shallow, hateful, judgmental and boring characters they are. Alice has decided to give the beloved Maine home to the local Catholic Church after her death and has concealed this fact from her family. Her daughter Kathleen, a left over hippie from the ‘60s is self centered and almost as hateful a character as her mother. Ann Marie is an emotionally stunted superficial woman who would make fertile ground for a psychiatric evaluation. Maggie, now pregnant by her latest poor choice in boyfriends is the best of the lot. Events conspire to bring these women together in the Maine house.

I found this story so depressing that I wondered how the publisher had marketed it. When I went to look I saw descriptions such as characters that are “flawed but lovable” (plenty of the former not so much on the latter); “wickedly funny” (not a single thing about this book was funny); “a great beach read” (only if you are willing to consume alcohol at the same rate as this group of alcoholic women);”abiding often irrational love for one another” (save me from this type of love). I also object to the characterization of this family as Irish American. I’ve known more than a few Irish American families and none as self centered, nasty and totally without any joy as this group.

You might ask why I continued with this story; about the only reason I can give is that I listened to it during some long car rides. The audio narration by Ann Marie Lee was really quite good and the only positive I can bring to this review. There were a number of accents that she seemed to effortlessly capture within the narrative.

Just say no to this one!

I listened to an audio copy of this novel borrowed from The Free Library of Philadelphia.