The Heist, by Daniel Silva
Fans of Daniel Silva keep growing in numbers and with The Heist, published in 2014 and number 14 in Silva's Gabriel Allon series, it is very easy to see why. As long-time readers of this series know, Gabriel Allon is a highly esteemed restorer of art works painted by the brilliant masters of European art. Yet, he also has another job as an agent of the Israeli government who becomes involved in international matters which can threaten the Israeli state and other issues. In The Heist, Allon's pal Julian Isherwood drags him into a nasty situation when Isherwood discovers a rogue art dealer who has been flayed and hung in the hall of an Italian estate. To prove Isherwood is innocent of any involvement with this brutal crime, Allon insulates himself into the mysterious world of art thieves who deal with extremely valuable paintings that have been stolen and sold on an international black market. Once again, Silva proves himself to be the master of international intrigue as the reader follows Allon untangling a vicious and dangerous web involving Middle Eastern politics and the murky, dangerous world of stolen art. As always in this series, the personal life of Allon comes into the plot and he is a terrifically wonderful character, who becomes a trusted friend to the reader as he races across Europe to find a solution to the crimes he uncovers. As a suggestion, the reader who has never read any of Silva's books involving Allon might enjoy this character and Silva's series featuring him the best by reading the series from the first book. The Heist is highly recommended as a great reading experience.
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The Heist, by Daniel Silva
Gone for Good, by Harlan Coben
This reviewer is new to the works of Harlan Coben, who is a highly popular crime writer and what a great read his Gone for Good is! The basic story is fairly simple in that Will Klein, whom the reader meets as an adult, totally adored his older brother Ken as they grew up in a New Jersey suburb of New York City. However, after Ken was accused of murdering the daughter of a neighbor, Ken totally disappeared. Eleven years after that crime, Will is still haunted by memories of Ken and is convinced he was innocent of any crime. After his Mother, who firmly believes Ken is innocent and still alive, dies, Will sets out to find some answers to his family questions. This story has many twists and turns and makes for a wonderful reading experience. Gone for Good shows why Coben is so widely read and is highly recommended.
The Bone Tree, by Greg Iles
The Bone Tree is the second volume of Greg Iles's fictional trilogy about Penn Cage, who is a character in several of Iles's books and currently Mayor of Natchez, Mississippi in The Bone Tree. His battles with the Double Eagles, a left-over remnant of the KKK, began in the first volume of this trilogy, Natchez Burning, and continues in this volume. They are truly an evil bunch of criminals bent on maintain their power in the modern South. Penn's father, Dr. Tom Cage, has been accused of the murder of a former nurse in his office. As in Natchez Burning, the Double Eagles are involved with Tom Cage, the nurse victim, and other segments of contemporary life in Mississippi and Louisiana. Many of the characters from Natchez Burning populate The Bone Tree as Iles weaves a spellbinding tale in this second volume.
The Bone Tree is a truly wonderful book. It is highly recommended that Natchez Burning be read before The Bone Tree so the reader can really be captivated by Iles's skill as a writer. He creates a totally-engaging tale of the modern South and this reviewer is eagerly anticipating the third and final volume of this trilogy.
Natchez Burning, by Greg Iles
Natchez Burning is this reviewer's introduction to a book written by Greg Iles. Actually, it is the first book of a planned trilogy and what a story teller Iles is. Iles begins this tale in 1964 with racially-driven, brutal killings in Natchez, Mississippi. Then, the story moves on to 2005 and the reader meets Penn Cage, the mayor of Natchez. For Iles's fans, this is the fourth book featuring Penn Cage, a very likeable and fine man who will be the main character in the trilogy. Penn's father Tom Cage, a physician in Natchez, could be arrested for the murder of an older black nurse who had worked for Tom in her much-younger years. The murders from 1964 then become involved in the story. An evil splinter group of the KKK, the Double Eagles, were the culprits in the 1964 crimes and are still determined to remain a potent force in Mississippi and Louisiana. From there, the story takes off with Penn Cage trying to clear his father of any connection to his former nurse's death, Tom Cage fleeing from arrest, the Double Eagles continuing to perform awful crimes, and many other events as Iles weaves his terrific story for the reader to enjoy. Iles has a wonderful writing style and fills this book with so much Southern atmosphere as well as suspense. His characters, be they good or evil, are solidly built. In all, Natchez Burning is an absorbing and excellently written story and leaves the reader eager to continue to volume 2 of Iles's trilogy.
Winter of the World, by Ken Follett
Continuing the story Follett began so well in Fall of Giants, Winter of the World, the second installment of his Twentieth Century Trilogy, resumes the saga of the families he created in his first part of the trilogy. The English, Welsh, German, American and Russian characters find themselves involved in challenging and tumultuous events as Europe struggles to recover from the devastation caused by World War I. Major developments such as the world-wide Depression, rise of Hitler and Nazism, the beginning of the Stalinist era in Russia, and the events that caused Europe and the world to dissolve into more world-wide catastrophic years of brutal fighting are the backdrop as his wonderfully-crafted characters experience these historical happenings. In particular, the Pearl Harbor attack is vividly brought to life as the Dewar family, members of the American military, are stationed in Honolulu on that fateful day. Follett also creates gripping depiction of life in Germany both under the Nazis and the terrible humiliations the Russians dealt to the Germans after they had defeated the German Army. As with Fall of Giants, Follett has written an extremely readable story in Winter of the World that captures so well the explosive years of 1933 through the Second World War. His third installment of this trilogy, Edge of Eternity will let readers follow these families during the last decades of the Twentieth Century. Winter of the World is highly recommended after reading Fall of Giants.
Jonathan Livingston Seagull, by Richard Bach
When Jonathan Livingston Seagull first came out in the early nineteen-seventies, it was very popular on my college campus. Some English professors required their students to read it, and I remember seeing a lot of copies in the bookstore. As it so happened, I didn't have an opportunity to read it in undergraduate school. Fortunately, while retrieving some books for a book display recently, I spotted a copy and decided to check it out.
Rather than limiting his time to fishing for food, Jonathan Livingston Seagull decides to pursue his passion of flying. He "pushes the envelope", and tries to fly higher and faster than any gull in history. Despite warnings from his peers to conform to ordinary gull life, he pursues his dream, and is soon ostracized for trying something new. Although he is forced into exile, he is happy and peaceful.
One day, two gulls (Angels?) appear and take him to a higher plane (Heaven?). He meets the Wisest Gull - Chiang - who teaches him how to "astro travel" (move instantly from one place to another in the Universe). He is told he can advance from level to level until he reaches the highest level through the Perfection of Knowledge. Jonathan is already ahead of his peers because of his efforts to fly on Earth. Chiang mentions the Greatest Gull (God?) who resides in the highest levels. Jonathan is given the opportunity to return to Earth to teach other "outkasts", who were exiled because they did not conform.
The beauty of this book is that it uses the simple life of a gull to teach us several relevant lessons of life. One should be true to himself, and pursue newly discovered abilities and skills. Conformity is not necessarily good since "pressing the envelope" can lead to new discoveries. Everyone should work on Love, and exercise Forgiveness in order to free the spirit. No one should be ostracized for being different. This is true in our own lives as well as Nature. The book was very relevant for the times (The Vietnam War Era). I felt very happy and peaceful after reading this classic.
Fall of Giants, by Ken Follett
Ken Follett, already known for his enthralling historical fiction works about medieval England, has written a terrific trilogy about the twentieth century and the first volume, Fall of Giants, gets the series off to a roaring start. Concentrating on the first decades in this book, Follet has created Russian, English, German, and American families whose lives at times will become entangled with each other as World War I first looms and then breaks out. Follett's skillful writing makes the times and events come alive as the reader is taken from the White House in Washington to the streets of St. Petersburg during the Russian Revolution. In particular, the gruesome trench fighting during the war is vividly portrayed. A bonus is the explanation, with thanks to Follett's clear writing, as to why all these events happened. Fall of Giants is an engrossing and highly entertaining beginning to what will obviously be a wonderful trilogy of books about the previous century.
The Berlin Stories, by Christopher Isherwood
The wonderful Berlin Stories by Christopher Isherwood, set in the lively Berlin of the 1930's, was first published after World War II and has endured in popularity ever since. While Isherwood was born in England, he spent much of the 1930's in Berlin working on developing his skills as a novelist and earned a living by being an English tutor. That experience gave Isherwood inspiration for the writing of this collection of short stories. With great skill, Isherwood captures the fascinating Berlin of those years. He has created so many intriguingly eccentric and vivid characters for his stories. Among them are Fraulein Schroeder, the landlady of the rooming house he calls home, the mysterious Mr. Norris who is wandering through Berlin with unknown motives, musicians trying to get work in seedy nightclubs, and many others. Perhaps the jewel in this collection is the one about Sally Bowles, whose story would be later adapted into the play I Am A Camera and the famous stage and movie musical Cabaret. The rising anti-Semitism in 1930's Berlin was becoming all too public and Isherwood weaves that development into his stories. Included in the Greenwich Library's collection are two related items. The terrifically entertaining movie Cabaret shows how Sally Bowles was brought brilliantly alive by Liza Minnelli. On a more serious note, William L. Shirer's Berlin Diary The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent is the diary kept by William L. Shirer, who served as the Berlin correspondent for CBS news during the pre-World War II years. His is a detailed history of the rise of Nazism in Germany he witnessed while living in Berlin during those years. This is a great follow up to The Berlin Stories as it documents the historical times from which Isherwood wrote his terrifically entertaining Berlin Stories.
The Signature of all Things, by Elizabeth Gilbert
After her previous, extremely successful autobiographical book Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert has changed genres and entered the world of fiction with her latest work, The Signature of All Things. Briefly, Gilbert's newest book is a sweeping, wonderfully written and absorbing tale set in the world of 19th century botany. It is so evident that Gilbert has done extensive research into the major developments made in the history of discovering and describing plants from all over the world during that time. Readers first meet Henry Whittaker in his Dickens-like life working on an English estate managing its vast gardens. After a series of calamities, he embarks on multi-year travels around the world studying plant life in various locales. Eventually, he settles in Philadelphia after establishing a successful business empire based on using plants for medicinal purposes. Henry's story studying plants around the world is quite interesting. His daughter Alma then becomes the main character and is a wonderfully complex and fascinating woman. In her younger years, she becomes the successor to her father as she runs his business. Her life eventually changes as she experiences a heart-breaking love affair and ends up, like her father, wandering the world studying plants. While writing a book set in the complex world of 19th century botany may strike some readers as an odd choice for fiction, Gilbert has made The Signature of all Things is a hugely enjoyable reading experience.
The Invention of Wings, by Sue Monk Kidd
Sue Monk Kidd has become an extremely popular writer, especially when her novel The Secret Life of Bees enjoyed a huge success in the past. Her latest book, The Invention of Wings, is a wonderfully moving, interesting and powerful historical novel centered around a slave-holding family, the Grimkes, in Charleston, South Carolina during the first decades of the 1800's. It is indeed routed in historical fact. Sarah and Angelina Grimke, each young girls as the story begins, led very unique lives as the Grimke family was a staunch defender of the rights of white Southerners to own slaves and benefit from the slave labor system. Sarah, with Angelina's support, eventually became one of the first female abolitionists in the United States after the two sisters fled Charleston and resettled in the North.
With Kidd's writing, both Sarah and Angelina come vividly alive as they develop into two women who grew to abhor slavery. The slaves held by the Grimkes are strikingly created, with Handful, a slave given to Sarah on her 11th birthday, becoming a key character. The horrors of slavery are essential to the story and the reader gets an insightful look at the evils of this southern labor system. After Sarah and Angelina flee to the North, they strive to promote the abolitionist cause. As Kidd details, this was not an easy task at times. Kidd continues her story of Handful and the other slaves owned by Grimke family who were trapped in their lives of bondage after the sisters moved north.
When Sue Monk Kidd was featured in the Library's Author Live Series, she spoke about her endless hours of research into the Grimke sisters lives and the historical detail she uncovered for her book. The Invention of Wings is a very moving story, based on historical fact, about the horrors of slavery and the bravery of two women who were determined to speak out the need to abolish the slavery system. This book would be a great choice for a book club.
The Paris Architect, by Charles Belfoure
The years the Nazis occupied Paris during World War II can be a great setting for historical fiction and Charles Belfoure has added an interesting book, The Paris Architect, to the genre. His main character, Lucien Bernard, is an architect who is approached by a fellow Frenchman to build a hiding place so a French Jew can hopefully live through the Nazi rule in Paris. Bernard is thrown into a moral crisis and he does come to a resolution of how he will handle the situation. Belfoure's writing of occupied Paris is often gripping with the evils of the Nazi rule evident in so many facets of Parisian life. The characters the authors has created are well drawn, especially the Coco Chanel-type fashion designer who collaborates with the Nazis. The Paris Architect might make good reading for book groups as it can raise good discussion points as Bernard tries to deal with the issues that arise in times of war.
The Cuckoo's Calling, by Robert Galbraith
Lovers of mystery writing, especially of authors who set their stories in Britain, can take note of a new (by name at least) author, Robert Galbraith, who is beginning a series of stories that will feature a memorable private detective. The Cuckoo's Calling introduces Cormoran Strike, a disabled veteran of fighting in the Middle East for Britain, who is struggling to organize a detective agency. The family of a super model engages him to determine if she did indeed commit suicide or was murdered. While the story might ramble at times, this is basically a fun read. Galbraith (a pen name, as has been widely discussed, for J.K. Rowling of Harry Potter fame) sets his story within the celebrity world of London models, actors and movie executives and the reader gets a good trip with those assorted characters as Strike solves the mystery. A humorous subplot is Strike's fumbling attempt to add a secretary/office assistant to his detective agency. Galbraith has published a second mystery featuring Strike and The Cuckoo's Calling is a good way to start this series.
The English Girl, by Daniel Silva
Yet another home run for Daniel Silva! The English Girl continues the adventures of Gabriel Allon, a fine arts restorer who also doubles as an cut-throat agent for the Israeli government, with his being asked by a long-time pal in the British secret service to help them find a young English girl who has been kidnapped. She is of particular interest to the British government since the British prime minister and this young lady were having an affair. Silva, as usual, keeps the plot racing as Allon searches not only to rescue the kidnapped girl but to discover why she was taken. Allon find out that there is far more involved in the kidnapping event than first assumed. As usual, Silva's writing is terrific with a finely constructed plot with the always intriguing character of Gabriel Allon at the center. For those who have read the other books in the Gabriel Allon series and have become big fans of Allon, the ending (actually the last sentence of the book) will add to the anticipation of Silva's next book featuring Allon. The English Girl is highly recommended.
The Charm School, by Nelson Demille
One of Nelson Demille's earlier books, The Charm School is a wonderful example of why he has remained a very widely-read author noted for books with intriguing plots for years. Set during the days of the Cold War, The Charm School offers a terrifically interesting plot. Briefly, while traveling through Russia in a Pontiac Grand Am, American Gregory Fisher quite accidentally and briefly stumbles across Major Jack Dodson in a pine forest. Dodson tells Fisher the seemingly outlandish tale that he has just escaped from a type of prisoner of war camp run by the Russians called Mrs. Ivanovs's Charm School. His fellow American prisoners at the "school" were all taken by the North Vietnamese during the United States involvement in the Vietnam War and shipped to Russia. When Fisher gets to Moscow, he contacts the American Embassy and tells Lisa Rhodes, a consular officer at the embassy this strange story. Rhodes subsequently enlists another embassy officer, Sam Hollis, to help verify the strange possibility that there indeed might be such a prison camp.
The Charm School takes off as Rhodes and Hollis travel around Russia trying to uncover the truth, if any, to this tale. A great feature supposedly of this school is that is serves as a training ground for Russian agents to be placed in America as spies. The school trains them to acquire true American traits and characteristics. Hollis and Rhodes face dangerous situations and tough dealings with the Cold War era Russian military officers as they race to find the truth.
Demille's writing makes The Charm School fun and gripping reading. He captures the Cold War mentality and tensions between the Russians and Americans quite strongly. When details of the school do emerge, the story becomes all the more entertaining. This is a great read and highly recommended.
The Gold Coast, by Nelson DeMille
For dedicated readers, it is always a pleasure to finally have time to discover an author whose works have not yet been read. Such is the case for this reviewer with Nelson DeMille, an extremely popular writer of fiction, and one of his earlier books The Gold Coast. The title refers to a northeastern enclave of Long Island noted for its collection of extremely wealthy residents and their large, architecturally impressive estates.
DeMille centers his story of John Sutter, who is an attorney catering to the financial and estate planning needs of his rich clientele. His wife Susan and their two children enjoy a life filled with many luxuries. However, the Sutter's world is turned upside down when Frank Bellarosa, a reputed Mafia boss, settles into the estate next door to theirs. DeMille's masterly crafted tale shows John Sutter attempting to deal with personal life crises while being unwittingly pulled into Bellarosa's world of corruption and crime. Sutter is a great and fun character - sarcastic, witty, smart and seemingly bent of self destruction at times. Frank Bellarosa is magnetic as he draws the Sutters under his control.
The Gold Coast is a wonderfully enjoyable read with great characters, a constantly unfolding plot of intrigues with Bellarosa and the Sutters, and terrific writing that gives the reader both a great story and insight into the charmed, though tragic at times, world of the Gold Coast residents.
The Fallen Angel, by Daniel Silva
Daniel Silva has become synonymous with terrifically entertaining reading experiences and his 2012 book, The Fallen Angel, adds to this reputation. As The Fallen Angel begins, Silva's great fictional character Gabriel Allon is happily restoring one of the Vatican's great Caravaggio masterpieces. However, when a woman's bloody body is discovered on the floor of St. Peter's Basilica, Gabriel is asked by a high Vatican official to investigate this very curious incident. Thus Allon, who has a most diverse double identity as a renowned art restorer as well as an agent for the Israeli government's Mossad force, becomes involved in yet another adventure. He discovers the connection of the dead woman to an international art theft operation that is also related to Middle Eastern terrorist organizations. Silva's story remains very interesting as Allon discovers plots that, if successful, would threaten world stability. Much of the action occurs in Jerusalem and, as usual, the readers of Silva's books can get terrific insight into the complex world of Middle Eastern politics. The Fallen Angel is a great read and should make the reader want to explore Silva's other works, especially those featuring Gabriel Allon.
Fever, by Mary Beth Keane
Fever is the retelling of Mary Mallon's aka "Typhoid Mary" story. The author has a vivid form of storytelling akin to an oral history unfolding. History tells us that Mary Mallon's "healthy carrier" genetic trait was a huge medical discovery for its time. She was the first to be exposed and sent to trial and socially outcasted/isolated. Keane's novel is in the perspective of the main character. We can relate to Mary Mallon's strife in her bewilderment and denial of her being responsible for the spread of typhoid fever to anyone she cooked for. We learn that Mary's dream as a young adult was to become a cook; she took pleasure in creating exquisite meals for her wealthy employers. We also grasp how not only did Mary have to continue her everyday life as a threat to society but also we learn about her personal life and how in early 20th century she was also scorned by her peers about her companionship with Alfred, her boyfriend of 20+ years. Although they never married and due to her first isolation from the Department of Health, Alfred reacts in a way anyone would in light of uncertainty. Through the character Alfred, Keane brings to light addiction of alcohol and narcotics. In the early 20th century, opium and heroin were used loosely as a form of pain medication, it isn't until years later that it is learned that these now illicit drugs create life-threatening addictions and cause of deaths.
Lastly through Mary we learn about societal issues that she dealt with in her generation that we continue to face today in the 21st century. Fever is an intriguing read than many can enjoy.
The Other Typist, by Suzanne Rindell
The Other Typist by debut author Suzanne Rindell is the best book I've read so far this summer. It's a psychological suspense novel set in the roaring 1920s. Most of the descriptions of this book mention an unreliable narrator, which I found intriguing.
Kirkus Reviews gave it a starred review, and I think this says it best, "Take a dollop of Alfred Hitchcock, a dollop of Patricia Highsmith, throw in some Great Gatsby flourishes, and the result is Rindell's debut, a pitch-black comedy about a police stenographer accused of murder in 1920s Manhattan. . . . A deliciously addictive, cinematically influenced page-turner, both comic and provocative." If you enjoyed Gone Girl, make this your next book. Happy reading!
The Last Telegram, by Liz Trenow
This debut novel should especially interest fans of historical fiction. Setting her story in England's silk production industry during the years before, during and after World War II, Liz Trenow's The Last Telegram is an interesting and very readable book. Lily Verner, the main character, becomes an apprentice in her family's silk weaving business in the prewar years and goes on to remain its driving figure for the balance of the twentieth century. Silk becomes the very-much needed material to make the parachutes for the soldiers who will fight against Nazi Germany. This is probably a little-known aspect of the war years for most readers and is a great background for Trenow's story. Immediately prior to the war, Lily's family gives shelter to young German Jewish males who are port of the Kindertransport, which tried to safely get German youth away from the evils of Nazism. Lily and her family endure much hardship in the war as well as personal traumas. Trenow has created very believable characters and a good story. Readers should look forward to her future books. The Last Telegram would make a great selection for book clubs!
The Buddha in the Attic, by Julie Otsuka
For those who were fortunate enough to attend Julie Otsuka's talk at the Greenwich Library about When the Emperor Was Divine, her first book and the Greenwich Reads selection for 2013, reading The Buddha in the Attic will be especially interesting. At that gathering, the author stated that her second book, The Buddha in the Attic, is really a "prequel" to her first book. And, it certainly is. While her first book is centered on the internment of Japanese Americans in camps during World War II, this book is centered on the immigration experience of the Japanese, specifically women, who came to America in the early years of the Twentieth Century. Their story is often bleak and filled with times of great despair as they tried to cope with living in a society totally opposite from that of their homeland. Otsuka has a terrifically effective writing style that makes The Buddha in the Attic a very moving reading experience. Both of these books are highly recommended as individual and companion reading experiences.
Paris has been a fountain of inspiration for generations of authors for centuries. This magnificent city can stimulate writers to create great works as well as served as a terrifically engaging setting for their stories. These three staff picks, one non-fiction and the other two fiction, are great examples of how the magic of Paris can enlighten an author's work.
Mission to Paris, by Alan Furst
Mission to Paris, the most recent book by the increasingly popular espionage-fiction writer Alan Furst, continues Furst's pattern of setting his stories in European cities during the years immediately prior to World War II. The intriguing main character Fredric Stahl has developed a very successful career as a leading actor of romantic roles in Hollywood during the 1930's. Arriving in Paris in the fall of 1938, he is there solely to make a movie. However, he becomes, quite unwittingly, a pawn between the pro-Germany propaganda machine gaining strength in France and other sections of Europe and the anti-Nazi camp led by the American and British. At first, Stahl has no interest in joining either of these political factions. But, as he gains a clearer realization of the evils of Nazism, he is drawn into the conflicts of that time in Paris. Paris, described so well by Furst, is the perfect setting for this intrigue. The cobbled streets, grand hotels, and so many other Parisian sights all become vivid backdrops for Stahl's adventures. Mission to Paris is fun, enjoyable reading with the attractions of Paris in the prewar years adding great charm to the story. Also, this is a great introduction to Furst's series of historical spy novels for those who have not read his books and want to explore more of his writing.
The Paris Wife, by Paula McLain
Of all the great writers associated with Paris, Ernest Hemingway certainly is one of the most noted. Paula McClain's wildly successful novel The Paris Wife is a fictionalized retelling of Hadley Richardson, Hemingway's first wife, and her life with the author, most of which was spent in Paris as he was trying to establish himself as a writer. Born in St. Louis, Hadley lived a somewhat sheltered life until she met the charmingly charismatic Ernest Hemingway on a trip to Chicago. The young Hemingway had already determined that a career as a writer was his true goal. They courted, married and the set out to establish a life for themselves in Paris in the 1920's. Not too long after their arrival, Hadley and Ernest has integrated themselves into the fabled world of Parisian writers that included Gertrude Stein, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound and many others.
McLain skillfully transports her readers into wonderful Parisian scenes: cafes filled with aspiring writers, cozy restaurants featuring wonderful Parisian cuisine, endless walks around charmingly beautiful Paris and trips into the French countryside. Life with the temperamental Hemingway was so often a challenge for Hadley. Their marriage eventually developed many stresses and strains. Finally, Hadley realizes she cannot live with such difficulties in her and their child's life and she separates from Hemingway as the way to ensure her own survival.
The Paris Wife is a terrifically readable, interesting and well-written story. McLain makes the Parisian world inhabited by Hadley and Ernest Hemingway come vividly alive. In an afterword, McLain tells the reader about the motivation and research techniques she used to write this fiction-stylized version of Hadley's life. This can enrich the enjoyment of reading The Paris Wife.
Paris: A Love Story, by Kati Marton
For so many, Paris is a magical location for its sightseeing, cuisine, historical importance and romance. Katie Marton captures the romantic Paris wonderfully in her touching memoir Paris: A Love Story. As a young television reporter stationed in various locales within Europe beginning in the late 1970's, she covered many big stories, ie. the return of the Ayatollah Khomeini to Iran from France in 1979. In this position, she met and had, at times, a tempestuous romance with the noted television news anchor Peter Jennings, much of which took place in Paris. They eventually married and had two children. Marton details this relationship, which at times was challenged by their work schedules and professional egos. Eventually they divorced and Marton went on to marry Richard Holbrooke, who carved out a very successful career for himself as an American diplomat, who tried to solve many challenging international situations. Among his assignments, Holbrooke was involved in trying to achieve a peace in the Balkan fighting of the 1990's and the Afghanistan crisis in the early 21st Century. Again, Paris was the city in which Marton and Holbrooke's courtship and marriage was centered.
After Holbrooke's death in 2010, Marton again returns to Paris, the scene of so much love and happiness in her life, and tries to renew her ability to live a contented life. Marton is quite moving as she tells the readers how Paris gave her the comfort to achieve this goal so she could move on and become adjusted to her personal loss. Paris: A Love Story is very well written and is highly recommended.
Thanks to all of for helping to make the this year a great one for the Library and all who work here. We appreciate all the kind words and support we've heard throughout the year.
The fine staff of the Children's room starts things off with their favorite children's and young adult titles of the year.
Bear has a story to tell, by Philip C. Stead ; illustrated by Erin E. Stead
A beautiful, sweet book by the 2011 Caldecott Winners of A Sick Day for Amos McGee. Bear has a story to share with his friends mole, duck, mouse and frog who are busy getting ready for winter's arrival. Preschool-Grade 2
Big Mean Mike, by Michelle Knudsen ; illustrations by Scott Magoon
Fluffy, white, adorable bunnies are hard to resist. This humorous book is about the toughest dog in town with the meanest, noisiest car. Big Mean Mike finds one fluffy bunny after another in his cool car and tries to find ways to get rid of them before they ruin his reputation. Preschool-Grade 2
Cindy Moo, by Lori Mortensen ; illustrated by Jeff Mack
When Cindy Loo hears the line in the nursery rhyme, "And the cow jumped over the moon", she sets out to do just that, even when the other cows laugh at her.
Each Kindness, by Jacqueline Woodson ; illustrated by E.B. Lewis
The watercolor illustrations and thought provoking story will start many discussion in classrooms and at home. After her teacher gives a lesson on kindness, Chloe realizes that she and her friends have not treated a classmate very well and she longs for a chance to make it right. Grades 2-5
Extra Yarn, by Mac Barnett ; illustrated by Jon Klassen
I read this picture book aloud to many students during class visits to the library. The illustrations are wonderful and the story is magical. Annabelle finds a box filled with colorful yarn and her knitting transforms her cold, dark town. Annabelle knits for her friends, neighbors and animals and it seems her box contains an endless supply of yarn. Students love to share their thoughts about Annabelle's mysterious yarn box, and what they would want an endless supply of in their own magical box. Grades K-3.
Happy, by Mies van Hout
An almost wordless book for one-on-one sharing or a small group. The author uses fish with different facial expressions and postures to portray 20 different emotions. A great book for interaction and discussion about feelings with pre-school children.
Penny and her song, by Kevin Henkes
This is the first entry in a new beginning reader series by the Caldecott Medal-winning author. Henkes introduces sweet and curious little mouse Penny, who longs to share a new counting song she has learned at school but is stopped by her parents who fear she will wake the babies. Penny's dilemma is resolved when the whole family gathers for her solo performance, singing a catching tune from one to ten and putting the siblings to sleep in the process.
Wonder, by R.J. Palacio
Children's Services loves this story and "wondered" whether it would resonate as much with children. It does. Children come in to request it, to rave about the book, and to ask for stories similar to it. Wonder tells the story of Ten-year-old Auggie Pullman, who was born with extreme facial abnormalities and is entering fifth grade at a private middle school after years of homeschooling. Told from multiple points of view, including Auggie, his sister, and several friends. School Library Journal notes that "everyone grows and develops as the story progresses, especially the middle school students. This is a fast read and would be a great discussion starter about love, support, and judging people on their appearance. A well-written, thought-provoking book." Recommended for grades 4-7.
Cinder: a Lunar chronicles novel , by Marissa Meyer
Under the Never Sky, by Veronica Rossi
And here are a few more young adult titles from our teen committee:
The Apprenticeship of Victor Frankenstein Book 1 : This dark endeavor, by Kenneth Oppel
Fifteen year old Victor Frankenstein struggles with feelings of inferiority towards his identical twin brother Konrad. While exploring the family home in Geneva with friends Elizabeth and Henry, the twins find a secret library filled with books on the occult. When Konrad becomes gravely ill, Victor becomes obsessed with alchemy and with creating the Elixer of Life to save his brother. During his search for the necessary ingredients, Victor's belief in the powers of the elixer take hold of him, changing the course of their lives forever.
The Fault in our Stars, by John Green
A book about childhood cancer; it doesn't sound appealing at first glance, but it is filled with immensely appealing characters. This book follows the stories of several teenage cancer patients who meet in a support group. Augustus, Hazel and Isaac look at their lives and their illness with the frankness and irony common to teenagers. They have hobbies, dreams and relationship problems, but they live with the reality that their lives will not be long. Somehow John Green, without pity or sentimentality, manages to provide a peek into a world that most people fortunately never glimpse. Readers should push aside their reluctance to read this book for fear it will be depressing. I recommend this title to young adults and their parents. This book is written by an acclaimed author of young adult fiction and is on the 2012 list of Teens' Top Ten, a list chosen by young adult readers. Please watch this video of the author John Green reading the first chapter.
Dodger, by Terry Pratchett
Batman: Earth one , written by, Geoff Johns ; pencils by, Gary Frank ; inks by Jonathan Sibal ; color by Brad Anderson ; lettered by Rob Leigh
Code name Verity , by Elizabeth Wein
The Scorpio Races, by Maggie Stiefvater
And here's what the rest of our staff has to say:
Ghostman, by Roger Hobbs
In Atlantic City a casino heist goes bad and "Jack" (our eponymous Ghostman) is called in to clean up the mess and find the money. It's not a job he actually wants to do, but he has a debt to pay for a job he botched years ago and the ruthless crime lord he owes isn't the type to forgive and forget. Jack must work against the clock and use all of his skills and cunning to outmaneuver the Feds and a rival crime lord before all $1.2 million of the casino take goes up in flames. I got the opportunity to read an advance copy of Ghostman and Roger Hobbs has written a taut, fast-paced crime thriller that will be hard to put down. This is an impressive debut novel from an author who, by my estimation, has a bright writing career ahead of him.
The Balkan Project, by Cavatina Duo
The recording I seem to be returning to most often recently is Balkan Project by the Cavatina Duo. The Library catalog describes this CD accurately enough as "Arrangements of traditional Balkan songs and dances for flute and guitar". What this phrase doesn't capture however is the virtuosity of both flautist Eugenia Moliner and guitarist Denis Azabagic and their almost telepathic interplay in service of lovely melodies, many of which are in odd-numbered time signatures. Much of this music doesn't sound particularly Balkan in origin -- more Pan-Southern European. Regardless, the often poignant lyricism of the material speaks directly to the emotions.
Beautiful Ruins, by Jess Walter
Walter re-imagines the lives of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor beginning at the time of the filming of Cleopatra in Rome. He has inserted a cast of memorable fictional characters into their lives to create an entertaining tale. In addition to Rome the narrative is set in a sleepy fictional hamlet on the Italian coast and in L. A. It weaves the threads of several story lines through nearly fifty years in amusing and occasionally tragic ways.
We Sinners, by Hanna Pylväinen
This slim first novel draws on the author's own life experiences. Each chapter is told from the perspective of one of the nine children and the parents in a large Midwestern family. Their lives are circumscribed by the beliefs and practices of the strict fundamentalist Finnish Lutheran church to which they belong. Each individual relates how he or she struggles to find his or her place in their family and in the world. Pylvainen who grew up near Detroit as a Laestadian Lutheran has written a sensitive portrait of family members wrestling with forbidden desires and trying to maintain their love for one another.
The Garner Files: a memoir , by James Garner
Out of the eleven books I reviewed this year, I'd have to say The Garner Files was my favorite! I read this book last March on the train when I went to visit my daughter in Charlotte. James Garner is one of my favorite actors, and I was very curious about his background. It was nothing like I expected! His mother died when he was young, his father was an absentee parent always on the road, and he and his brother were brought up by relatives. He never finished school, and never had any formal training in acting. Garner got into acting because a friend kept on prodding him. And he was a natural! This book relates his dealings with unscrupulous Hollywood managers, temperamental actors and humorous situations. He worked with some of the greatest actors of all times. As I mentioned in my earlier Staff Pick, I came away with a greater appreciation for the man James Garner. You should read it. I'm sure you'll enjoy it!
The Cherry Thing, by Neneh Cherry & the Thing
A collaboration between vocalist Neneh Cherry and Scandinavian instrumental jazz trio The Thing. Over the course of this lurching and powerful record they cover songs by the like of Suicide, The Stooges and Ornette Coleman, among others. They manage to put their own stamp on these songs. The band, made up of bass, drums and saxophone build walls of tension behind Cherry's vocals creating a singular sound.
The Flaming Lips and Heady Fwends, by The Flaming Lips
Only Wayne Coyne and his band could actually pull off this idea, a double album featuring different "guests" on each track without things turning into a crazy jumbled mess. As it turns out, almost whoever they threw into this stew manages to hold their own and add to the band's heavy and discomforting sound. This CD version pales a bit in comparison to the now out of print double vinyl version by adding a few unnecessary touches but still, it's confounding how it all comes together.
Swing lo Magellan , by Dirty Projectors
The sheer joy on display here from the band manages to overcome their many pretensions. Plus, this features the year's best guitar riff...easily.
Pulphead: essays, by John Jeremiah Sullivan
John Jeremiah Sullivan makes essay writing seem so easy. With an easy charm and a quiet confidence,he immediately puts the reader at ease. His quirky choices of subjects doesn't hurt either; my favorite essay leads the book off. In it he visits a christian rock festival. He was ready to make fun of these folks and, he still does but also gains a grudging admiration for them. But really, anywhere you open this book you're bound to find a charmer. Currently, Mr . Sullivan is writing frequently for the New York Times Magazine, where he most recently told us about his "Multiday Massage-a-thon."
(the critics were WRONG!)
When Horror came to Shochiku
Four classic Japanese horror films from the 60s finally available from Criterion.
Blunderbuss, by Jack White
Bish Bosch, by Scott Walker
Tempest, by Bob Dylan
Lady, go die!: a Mike Hammer mystery, by Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins
Redshirts, by John Scalzi
Leviathan Wakes: an Expanse novel, by James S.A. Corey
The Big Book of Ghost Stories , edited by Otto Penzler
Lots of classic horror tales by a very diverse collection of writers from H.P. Lovecraft to Joyce Carol Oates.
Shadow show : an anthology of original short fiction by 26 authors, each of whom was inspired by the legendary work of Ray Bradbury, edited by Sam Weller and Mort Castle
The Voice is All: the lonely victory of Jack Kerouac , by Joyce Johnson
Marvel Comics: the untold story , by Sean Howe
Jack Kerouac: collected poems, edited by Marilene Phipps-Kettlewell
Assassins Creed 3, by Ubisoft
Ever wondered what downtown Boston and New York looked like during the revolutionary war? Well the designers at Ubisoft have accurately recreated both cities as your playground (in fact a good portion of the eastern seaboard can be explored). This game offers a historical fiction plot line with a serious sci-fi twist. Whether on missions or moving around in free play, this game is sure to become your next great time suck! As an Assassin, your job is to stop the evil Templars (who are responsible for the death of your mother). I highly recommend this to anyone who has an extra 100 hrs at their disposal! My favorite parts are participating in the Boston Tea Party and befriending Samuel Adams. Who said learning wasn't fun!
Jerusalem: chronicles from the Holy City, by Guy Delisle; coloured by Lucie Firoud & Guy Delisle; translated by Helge Dascher
Cartoonist Guy Delisle has made a career of combining his NGO work with graphic novel travelogues. With Jerusalem he has reached a pinnacle of sorts, by masterly weaving together his day to day struggles living within the city and highlighting it's historical relevance and cultural diversity. Though they are covered, the political realities of the city rarely take center stage here, as Delisle is careful not to overshadow his narrative with the ongoing conflict. By doing so, Delisle succeeds in giving us a report from the frontlines that is remarkably humane.
The Turin Horse, directed by Bela Tarr
Hungarian director Béla Tarr has claimed that this will be his last film and it is indeed a masterwork. Shot in 30 long takes, the film's slow pace, somber repetitiveness and bleak outlook will turn away most audiences; but if you are in the mood for a Nietzchean reflection on the endtimes, this is the film for you. I found it incredibly moving, the kind of film that sticks with you for an eternity. Words truly do not do this film justice, each viewer should be left to interpret it on their own.
Black is Beautiful, by Dean Blunt & Inga Copeland
Under the moniker Hype Williams, Blunt and Copeland have released a plethora of material on mixtapes and blogs over the past few years. In the process they have built up a rabid cult following within the online underground music community. With Black is Beautiful, the UK duo have lived up to this praise and continued their prolific streak with a very non-traditional release. Every track on the disc feels like a work in progress, yet they all flow together as if premeditated. Throwing together disparate strains of free jazz, hip hop and reggae the duo take the trip hop sound laid down by artists like Tricky and Portishead over a decade ago, disassemble it and reconfigure for an uncertain future.
Lucifer, by Peaking Lights
Lucifer is a joyous celebration of low-fidelity musical mysticism. Peaking Lights combination of dance music refuse, dub and lo-fi/indie rock tropes is hypnotically dizzying in its scope. Unlike other acts mining similar territory, they approach their sound without an ounce of irony or self-awareness and this makes all the difference- as their sincerity shines through.
Rose: my life in service to Lady Astor, by Rosina Harrison
This is an engaging memoir by a woman, Rosina Harrisson, who made a career of being a lady's maid in the early to mid 20th century. During her life in service to famous and sometimes infamous Nancy Astor, she achieved her life dream of travel and adventure. It is interesting to compare her version of life upstairs and downstairs with the popular Downton Abbey and Gosford Park. It is also an excellent read in preparation for the new biography of Nancy Astor by Adrian Fort to be published in the US in January 2013. Nancy was an American southern belle divorcee who made a brilliant marriage to Waldorf Astor and became among many things, the first woman elected to the House of Commons where she stayed for 25 years.And Rose was with her the whole time keeping her clothes and diamonds in order as well as her renowned temper. This was no mean accomplishment for, a Yorkshire country girl. Enjoy!
Picks from our Cos Cob staff
Sandcastle Girls, by Chris Bohjalian
The Orchardist, by Amanda Coplin
Wild: from lost to found on the Pacific Crest Trail , by Cheryl Strayed
Before the Poison, by Peter Robinson
The Chaperone, by Laura Moriarty
Where'd you go, Bernadette, by Maria Semple
The Lifeboat, by Charlotte Rogan
For fiction readers, it is always a pleasure to discover an author whose first book is not only highly readable, but also displays great writing talent. Such is the case with The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan. Told in the first person, the prologue gives a brief glimpse into the story. Apparently, the main character, Grace Winter, is involved in a court proceeding of some sort. Then, the story reverts back in time with Grace adrift in a lifeboat somewhere in the north Atlantic after the ship she was on sank. The year is 1914 and the impending world war has caused many to escape from Europe to New York. This is, for the most part, a survival at sea story as Grace and her fellow survivors try to stay alive on their small lifeboat. The diverse collection of characters is credibly drawn and the interaction among them causes great tensions to mount as the days go on and on without a rescue. Rogan's knowledge of the sea and boats is evident with her skillful depiction of the small craft plunging through stormy waters and the attempt of Grace and the others to find water and some food to avoid dying at sea. Eventually, the reason for the Grace's being in a courtroom becomes clear and adds a good touch to the story. The Lifeboat has interesting characters involved in a very dramatic situation and makes for an enjoyable reading experience.
On the wait list for Gone Girl in book or ebook format? Try The Boy in the Suitcase, a Nina Borg mystery by Lene Kaaberbol. This mystery is the first in a best-selling Danish series to be translated into English. Nina Borg, a Red Cross nurse, wife, and mother of two can't say no when asked for help. When her estranged friend Karin leaves her a key to a public locker in the Copenhagen train station, Nina finds a suitcase, and inside the suitcase is a three-year-old boy: naked and drugged, but alive. A flawed heroine, the Danish underworld, a trek across the countryside are ingredients for a good read. Kaaberbol's second title Invisible Murder arrives in October.
The Master's Muse, by Varley O'Connor
This exquisitely written novel tells the story, in memoir form, of the legendary dancer Tanaquil Le Clerq, George Balanchine's last wife and the inspiration for many of his most noted works. Her career was cut short by polio at 27, which deepened their marriage in unexpected ways as she reinvented her life with style, grace and humor. By turns richly emotional, sharply observant, and witty, this is simply the best book I've read all year.
Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, by Cheryl Strayed
Honest memoir of an 1100 mile solo hike with twists and turns along the way. Get out your hiking boots!
Sandcastle Girls, by Chris Bohjalian
Fictional account of the Armenian genocide of 1915-16. A riveting story of love and war.
Can't Hurry Love, by Molly O'Keefe
If Rachel Gibson is a guilty pleasure, then you definitely should like Molly O'Keefe's Crooked Creek series. Even though they do stand alone, you would do well to start with, Can't Buy Me Love. It introduces you to the Crooked Creek Ranch and its dying patriarch, Lyle Baker. It is his will that propels the narrative and ignites the conflict between the protagonists. While in the first book in the series, you get a gutsy trailer trash heroine and a hunky hockey hero, the second takes quite a different tack. Victoria Baker, born on the wrong side of the sheets, is a little hard to like. Pretty, but she whines and whinges and can't get beyond the fact that her ex-husband betrayed her and her beloved son, Jacob, with his Madoff like Ponzi scheme. She is also a thorn in the side of Eli Turnbull, a typically rugged and too handsome cowboy, who feels that his family is the real owner of Crooked Creek, Predictably sparks fly and feelings are hurt and somehow it all comes together. The writing is surprisingly good. Molly O'Keefe's biography says that among many things, she wanted to be a cowgirl and a chef. I know that I was taken by her Texas descriptions and fell in love with Ruby the housekeeper and her fantastic Tex-Mex fare. Too bad we have to wait until January for the next installment. I am sure it will be worth it! *
Wastelands: Stories of the Apocalypse, edited by John Joseph Adams
Wastelands is an interesting collection of short stories imagining what life might be like after the end of the world as we know it (or "TEOTWAWKI" for all you survivalist mavens out there) across an assortment of doomsday scenarios. Nuclear war, plague, global warming, whatever. The assumption being that in any given scenario, human life may be expected to survive in some way, shape or form, given that there's almost always at least some small percentage that manages to beat the odds. And while it's interesting to imagine how our civilization might ultimately meet its demise, it is equally interesting to imagine what might come after us. These stories range in tone from realistic, to funny, to scary, to the truly bizarre, and odds are that you'll find at least one or two that strike a particular chord with you; two stand-outs for me were "When Sysadmins Ruled the Earth" and "The People of Sand and Slag".
The Rembrandt Affair, by Daniel Silva
For the legion of Daniel Silva fans, The Rembrandt Affair continues the terrifically engaging series of books featuring the fictional character Gabriel Allon and displays the high level of reading enjoyment found in his other books. Allon is a very interesting character with a double life - in his "cover" career he is a professional restorer of fine art paintings that masks his other life as an intelligence officer for the Israeli government. As readers of Silva's books featuring Allon know, he manages to become involved in episodes of political and international intrigue. In the Rembrandt Affair, Allon has supposedly retired from his high powered adventures to enjoy life on the English coast with is art work. However, he is recruited to help an old friend find a missing Rembrandt painting. By agreeing to do that seemingly simple task, Allon becomes deeply involved in yet another affair of murder, Middle Eastern politics, corrupt business practices and issues of world-wide security. Several characters have appeared in other Silva books and each contributes key actions to help resolve this crisis. The Rembrandt Affair is fun and highly enjoyable reading. For readers who become fans of Silva, this reviewer encourages they read his other Allon books in order of publication. These titles are held at The Greenwich Library.
The Help, by Kathryn Stockett
To those who have not yet read Kathryn Stockett's hugely popular The Help, this reviewer is pleased to report that it is as great a reading experience as so many have reported since it publication in 2009. Set in Jackson, Mississippi in 1962, the main character is Skeeter Phelan, a recent graduate of Old Miss. Dreaming of developing a writing career after her college graduation, Skeeter is frustrated by the lack of opportunities for doing that as she moves back to her parents' home after receiving her college degree. Her sole outlet for writing becomes creating a home-maintenance advice column for the local newspaper. Not giving up on her writing dream, Skeeter begins to plot the story she wants to write. It concerns using the lives of assorted maids who work for white families in Jackson to write a work of fiction. She first convinces the indomitable Aibileen Clark to cooperate with her by having Aibileen agree to tell Skeeter all about her life as a black woman being the maid for years in white homes in Jackson. After overcoming much reluctance by many other maids to speak with her, Skeeter finally gains their confidence and she begins to collect the life stories of other Jackson maids.
The Help is so well plotted and written that the reader is totally transported to Jackson, Mississippi during the days of uneasy racial relations between white and black. Being a black woman serving as a maid in a white house was full of twists and turns - many heart breaking and deeply humiliating for those women. Stockett so vividly and humanely brings her wonderful characters to unforgettable life. One in particular, Minny Jackson is a sharp-tongued observer of the life she and Aibileen must endure and survive. In all, The Help is a terrifically entertaining story and highly recommended. If a book club has not yet chosen this title, it is would be a great reading selection.
As you might expect, the Greenwich Library staff are an erudite bunch; opinionated too. Here are some of their favorite things from the past year.
My Favorite Design Books
Design Sponge at Home, by Grace Bonney
This is an amazing book by the creator of the popular design blog Design*Sponge. The book features beautiful photos and illustrations with home tours, realistic DIY projects with helpful step-by-step tutorials, and before and after makeovers. If you're looking to personalize your home on a budget, and need to know how to do it all yourself, this is the perfect place to start.
Black & White (and a bit in between), by Celerie Kemble
Black and white is my absolute favorite color combination. It is striking, dramatic and glamorous but can also be soothing and understated. In addition to her own, designer Celerie Kemble includes rooms by other well known designers, so you experience many points of view along the common theme of black and white. Kemble also covers adding neutrals and pops of color to accentuate your space. Great for inspiration.
Some 2011 highlights
Beginners, directed by Mike Mills
This deft and charming film focuses on sad guy Oliver Fields, played by Ewan McGregor, as he comes to terms with the death of his father and his attempt, after many failures, at a meaningful relationship. The story, told in flashbacks as well as the present (well, 2003 but, close enough,) allows us to see the baggage that Oliver is carrying around in his adult life. We learn that after his mother dies his father, which much aplomb, comes out of the closet. And, in a way, it's the story of Oliver coming out of his own closet of sadness and self-doubt. He begins a romance with the lovely Anna (played by the super cute Melanie Laurent))after they meet at a costume party. It's the scenes of their sometimes awkward courtship that are intermixed with the back story of Oliver's life. Neither of them is very good at relationships and, thanks to Mills excellent script, we learn why Oliver is reticent but we are offered just brief clues as to what lies in Anna's past.Despite the fact that they are in their late 30's, they are still beginners.
Christopher Plummer nearly steals the show as Oliver's dad and, even despite the presence of a cute little dog, things never get too precious.
Our Lives are Shaped by What We love: Motown's Mowest Story 1971-1973, by various artists
Who knew that, in the early '70's, Motown records founder Berry Gordy, Jr. ran a left coast version of his legendary Detroit record label. It was called Mowest and was dedicated to the grooving sounds of the west coast, with a sharp eye on the top of the charts. (Those were the days when top ten records really mattered.) Even though the label released over forty singles and close to a dozen albums the hits never happened and the imprint called it a day in 1973. But...that doesn't mean the music wasn't worthwhile because, in retrospect there were scores of great songs that were released during that time. Forty plus years later the best of those have been collected on this beautiful re-issue. Nearly every track is a winner and what's most striking is the wide variety of styles found on the collection. There's quite a bit of top shelf R&B, of course, by the like of such unknowns as Syreeta, G.C. Cameron and Sister Love but there's some nice Topanga Canyonesque rock from Lodi and some straight up hippie sounds from Odyssey. And after listening to this record I guarantee you that you'll never think about Frankie Valli & the Four seasons. They show up twice here, once offering up a fierce Meters like funk workout with a killer horn break called "Sun Country." The real highlight is a sneaky number by Syreeta called "I Love Everything Little Thing About You" that captures the breezy west coast sound Gordy was after with Mowest. It features an unmistakable Stevie Wonder on keyboards (he also produced her record for Mowest) and brings a synthesizer inflected funk sound to the track. I'd love to hear the whole record someday. This one was a super nice surprise.
Jernigan & Preston Falls, by David Gates
If all this Holiday cheer has you down I can recommend the writing of David Gates. While they aren't necessarily new (they were published in 1991 and 1998) these novels they're new to me. The men In these books, Peter Jernigan and Doug Willis, manage to wreck nearly everything and everyone they come in contact with. Jernigan is a self-centered drunk who is trying to come to terms with the death of his wife, who apparently was a bigger drunk than him. His dubious method of doing so is to drink even more than he used to and by losing his job. And, just when you think he can't sink any lower he moves in with the mother of his son's girlfriend. It's a creepy arrangement but it works...for a little while. It's a grim story but Gates makes it compulsively readable by creating characters that are entirely believable. He also adds a healthy dose of gallows humor to the book. Expanding on the same ground that Raymond Carver covered, Gates offers up a glimpse of a life that's spinning out of control. It's unclear if Jernigan actually wants to get well (at times he seems perfectly content to be a wretched drunk.) He doesn't do a whole lot of soul searching but, despite his shortcomings, he is still saved from his certain demise by his sadly neglected son. It's a powerful book that, in the wrong hands could have been too much. But Gates knows the territory well and cushions the blow with a strong dose of humanity.
In Preston Falls, Doug Willis isn't much better but at least he has a job. He's also smack in the middle of a mid-life crisis. To combat that, he decides to take a sabbatical from his corporate job and head to his summer house in Vermont with the intention of fixing it up. He leaves his wife and kids to fend for themselves. But a series of poor decisions ends turning his vacation into a nightmare. Throughout the book Gates drops hints that Willis's marriage has been on the rocks from quite some time. His wife is resentful that he's left but, in a way she seems thankful as well. His absence is one less hardship for her to deal with. Soon after his arrival in Preston Falls Willis falls in with some disreputable townies and before you know it, things are spinning out of control. He handles it about as poorly as a person could and ends penniless and on the run. And once again it's his wife, friend and family that do their best to get things squared away. Even though things are rough for a good portion of the novel, Gates leaves us with a little glimmer of hope.
Gates has scarcely been heard from since the publication of Preston Falls. Besides a short story collection there has been nothing. I can't help but suspect that some of the issues that surround his male characters come from direct experience. I also get the feeling that writing these books was a very difficult process. One that he may still be recovering from.
Major Pettigrew's Last Stand, by Helen Simonson
Helen Simonson has written a real charmer of a book with Major Pettigrew's Last Stand. Whether one is a avid or infrequent reader, this book can be a thoroughly entertaining and rewarding reading experience. The Major Pettigrew of the title is a retired, widowed British military officer recovering from the death of his brother. A chance encounter with Mrs. Jasmina Ali, a Pakistani shop keeper, is the starting point of a friendship based, at first, on a mutual love of literature. Set in a seemingly tranquil English small town, the balance of this very well-crafted story follows the events in Pettigrew's life as he rediscovers the fact that joy can return to his life. While Major Pettigrew's Last Stand is Helen Simonson's first novel, this reviewer is hopeful that she will continue to write books as enjoyable as this one. The bonus of reading the Random House Reader's Circle edition available at the Greenwich Library is an interview with Simonson as well as a readers discussion section. This would be a great selection for a book club.
Briefly, if this reviewer were to pick the best books read in 2011, the fiction winner would be Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson and for nonfiction, it would be Founding Gardeners : The Revolutionary Generation, Nature and the Shaping of the American Nation by Andrea Wulf. That book is reviewed in the Staff Picks column.
Chamber Music, Vols 1-3, by Rodolfo Halffter
My musical discovery of the year is the Spanish/Mexican composer Rodolfo Halffter (1900-1987). The Library owns a series of three CDs (COMP DISC 785.1 HALFF) devoted to his chamber music and I was particularly impressed with the third installment. The distinctive mix of neo-classicism and accessible atonalism on this recording has led me to more repeat listenings than any other recent release. All three discs can also be auditioned via Naxos Music Library on the Digital Music Page of the Library's website.
Complete Music for Piano, by Joaquin Rodrigo
Joaquin Rodrigo isn't particularly well known for his compositions for piano. However, I discovered his Complete Music for Piano a few months ago via the Library's subscription to Naxos Music Library and continue to revisit this uniformly charming release regularly. Magisterially played by Gregory Allen, the two disc set is also available on CD (COMP DISC 786.2 RODRI) at the Main Library.
All the Devils are Here: the Hidden History of the Financial Crisis, by Bethany McLean & Joe Nocera
If you are still looking to read a single book that will explain the cause of the continuing recession, All the Devils Are Here is the right one to read. One of the authors, Bethany McLean, is also the author of the highly readable Enron expose, The Smartest Guys in the Room, and Joe Nocera is a business columnist for The New York Times. They two have woven together the history of the mortgage industry, the historical role of the U.S. government in promoting home ownership, backgrounds of the many financial institutions that devised financial instruments to trade mortgages and the human failures at all levels. They show that there is plenty of blame to go around.
Germinal, by Emile Zola
"Out on the open plain, on a starless, ink-dark night, a lone man was following the highway from Marchiennes to Montsou,1 ten kilometres of paved road that cut directly across the fields of beet." That first sentence and Nicholas Kristoff's recommendation in the NYT last summer led me to tackle a major novel of the 19th century. This work describes coal miners in France during a strike in the 1860s. The miners are not just the simple poor, but complex men and women living an impossibly bleak life. The mine owners and managers are multifaceted characters also buffeted by the changes of the Industrial Revolution. This book resonates long after a rousing group discussion. Read this novel and you will understand the labor movement as never before. I can't recommend Germinal highly enough
Narrow Dog to Carcassone & Narrow Dog to Indian River, by Terry Darlington
These are among the funniest books I've read. "We could bore ourselves to death, drink ourselves to death, or have a bit of an adventure..." Retired Welsh couple Terry and Monica Darlington and their whippet Jim, take a couple of journeys on their narrowboat (a canal boat), first down the Rhone River to the south of France, and then down the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway. It quickly becomes clear why no narrowboat has been seen in the Eastern U.S. These two books are comic, poignant, dangerous and joyful. If you love the witty observations of Bill Bryson, and if you love Mark Twain, these two books will be right up your alley!
Games of the Year
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, developed and published by Bethesda Softworks
Bethesda's fifth entry in its popular Elder Scrolls series, Skyrim, is pure fun. Explore a massive and beautifully detailed world as just about any kind of character you want to be with a multitude of things to do. Just make sure you wear some knee armor!
Just Dance 3, developed and published by Ubi Soft.
Just Dance 3: Wow. As an early adopter of the Wii version of Dance Dance Revolution, I was sure I was going to like this game. But I had no way of knowing how ridiculously fun it would be to dance by myself in my living room. Do I look like a complete idiot? Most definitely! Am I having an amazing time and learning ridiculous dance moves that will certainly be displayed at the next wedding I attend? Yes! I've never been to a wedding where a good representation of the Robot is not appreciated. I also had the opportunity of playing multiplayer. It's like being in a music video and if I can convince someone to memorize some of these dance moves with me, I will have a full on performance planned in the near future. And for anyone looking for some physical activity, look no further. This game will get your heart pumping . The basics are simple. Pick your song (literally any genre) and follow the choreographed dance moves of the character. Your movements are judged on how closely they mimic the character and points are awarded accordingly.
** I should note that all dogs, people and furniture that you don't want impaled by flailing limbs should be moved as far away as possible as you will dance like you have never danced before.
L.A. Noire, developed and published by Rockstar Games
I love crime shows. And playing this video game was like taking control of a crime show set in LA in 1947. Rock Star Games, who also created the Grand Theft Auto series and Red Dead Redemption, is responsible for this epic tale of murder, drugs, and corruption. So the synopsis of the game is as follows. You're an ex soldier who returned from the war to become a police officer in LA in 1947. As you solve crimes you are slowly promoted. Solving crimes involve all of our favorite things Rock Star Games has offered us over the years: shooting, fighting and driving fast. Unlike other Rock Star Games however, this one is slightly more structured and setup more like a level-up kind of game. Each case involves interrogations, clues, chases and or shoot-outs and not all conclude with a happy ending. I don't usually play a game for its graphics, but not mentioning them in this game would be doing this review a disservice. For anyone with an interest in old historical Hollywood, this game gives an unbelievably accurate representation. The sheer detail of the land makes you stop and look around. And the characters in the game look so real you actually can read their facial expressions. For any movie history buffs, this game will certainly excite you. The game is made to have that "Film Noire" look to it. It's dark, gritty and there's a crime of passion around every corner. It also references a lot of the emotions many men and women were going through post WWII (which for me, seems to be pretty deep for a video game). I highly suggested giving this game a shot, just be prepared to devote 60 hours of your next month!
Lego Harry Potter: Years 5-7 , by Warner Home Video
As a fan of the Lego series games I am rarely disappointed by the release of another Lego game. And Lego Harry Potter Years 5-7 held up to my expectations. All the basic game play is the same as previous Lego games. You break blocks and build them, wizardry can be used to move items and potions help you change characters. They added a few helpful hints to help you complete the game at 100% (which I was certainly grateful for). Much like the books and movies this game takes a dark turn during the last 4 chapters. Things have gotten a lot more serious for Harry. However, the game still takes the liberty to make small jokes whenever possible (which I appreciate- Keep your eye out for the Monty Python reference). I am not as familiar with the Harry Potter story as I am with some of the other Lego franchises. However, I was still able to complete the game. After unlocking several characters you are able to return to Hogwarts and unlock the evil areas as Lord Voldemort or perform new spells on signing mandrakes. Each level has characters to unlock and crests to collect. Red bricks can be found throughout Hogwarts (unlocking these give you extra abilities) and there are a total of 200 gold bricks to collect! The one thing I noticed first when playing this game is how much of the base area they expanded since Lego Harry Potter Years 1-4. There is still Diagon Alley and Hogwarts, but they have also added some parts of London and the train stations. Seeing these areas in the movies was cool, but interacting with them in a video game is even cooler! In the end this game is not really that hard, but it is fun and lasts long enough so that you can really enjoy the game play.
Life Itself, by Roger Ebert
Having lost the ability to speak, eat and drink due to multiple surgeries for thyroid cancer, Roger Ebert has written an eloquent memoir. He recalls his early life in the Midwest, his career in journalism as a film critic, and stories about his colleagues, celebrity actors and movie directors. He writes lovingly about his relationship with his father and honestly about his own and his mother's struggles with alcoholism as well as their divergent views of the Catholic church. His vivid memories of meals he has savored are entertainingly recalled. The account of how in later life he met and married his supportive wife, Chaz and bonded with her large extended family is especially endearing. Edward Herrman's narration of the cd version of the text is perfect.
The Great Railway Bazaar: By Train Through Asia, by Paul Theroux
When I thought back to the books I've read in 2011, the one that stood out in my mind was "The Great Railway Bazaar: By Train Through Asia" by Paul Theroux.It reminded me of the great Agatha Christie novel "Murder On the Orient Express". Theroux decided to take a train trip to a warm, dry climate to shake off an illness brought on by the cold, damp British climate.He meets a motley crew of characters as he transfers from train to train. Train politics consists of bribing the conductor for an upgrade in accommodations. The trains seem to vary in their conformance to any kind of schedule. There are colorful descriptions of people and landscapes, as well as local customs. Sacred temples and sites are used differently from country to country. Perhaps the most striking aspect is the abject poverty visible across Eurasia. If you'd like to read a book with a touch of romanticism from an earlier time and space, and a stark look at other cultures, I suggest you download this e-book
Adventure Time: My Two Favorite People.
The only television program I watch with any regularity, Cartoon Network's Adventure Time, is a rollercoaster ride of fun and surrealism. An added bonus is having a show that I can enjoy on equal footing with my 9 year old son! Read more here.
Music for Merce, by Various Artists
The New World Records label has really outdone themselves with this 10 CD boxset. Chronicling over fifty years of music written/performed for Merce Cunningham's dance pieces, the names here are a who's who of modern music: John Cage, Pauline Oliveros, David Tudor, Morton Feldman, Gordon Mumma, and many more. The music is incredibly challenging, using primitive electronics and amplification processes to open up new avenues of composition. If you are a fan of experimental music, this boxset is simply manna from heaven.
The Viola Works, by Giacinto Scelsi
Italian composer Scelsi's work was relatively unknown during his lifetime, but his status as a true giant of 20th Century composition has been growing ever more prominent. These works for viola demonstrate his transcendent aesthetic perfectly. Touching upon elements of minimalism, non-western musical idioms and atonality; his compositions enter a realm of somber beauty all their own.
Duncan the Wonder Dog: Show 1, by Adam Hines
Hines' ambitious 400 page graphic novel may initially appear daunting, but upon reading the first few chapters the reader is transfixed. Detailing a world where animals can speak, their varying relationships with and treatment by humans are explored in depth. Hines' paints a realistic world that uses a dizzying array of layouts to form a visual narrative that never ceases to amaze. The story itself is a philosophical landmine, provoking the reader to question his/her relationship to nature and the world around them. Duncan may well be one of the smartest graphic novels I have ever read and will stay with you long after you read it.
We Must Become the Pitiless Censors of Ourselves, by John Maus
Maus has refined his craft as a member of Ariel Pink's collective over the years and his newest disc shows him to be at the pinnacle of his craft. Each track on this album feels like it was culled together from my own memories of the synthpop/postpunk tracks of my youth. This is further exemplified with the album's hazy, dreamlike production, leaving one with a disc that feels oddly familiar yet whose emotions are startlingly relevant.
Someone Gave Me Religion, by Arnaud Rebotini
Rebotini has always come across a vintage synthesizer fetishist, going so far as to list each piece of equipment used on past recordings. But with his newest release he finally gets his cherished gear to sing. From the opening 13-minute cosmic ambient track onwards, Rebotini references everything from minimal techno to ebm to Chicago house with giddy aplomb.
White Material, by Claire Denis
Claire Denis latest film to explore her youth in Africa is a stunning portrait of a stubborn French woman's quest to retain her family's coffee plantation amidst the violent collapse of African imperialism. Isabelle Huppert plays the woman with stoic intensity, trying her best to go about life ignorant of the chaos around her. She unwittingly becomes the savior of a wounded rebel army leader as warring factions within the country run rampant. The film's portrayal of Africa is both haunting and beautiful and carries an intense sense of foreboding till it's bitter ending. The rest of the cast are also superb including Christophe Lambert (Highlander!)and Isaach de Bankolé.
Human Centipede: The First Sequence, by Directed by Tom Six
A real guilty pleasure with this one, a horror movie that manages to disgust and humor simultaneously. Not for the faint of heart.
From the Cos Cob Branch Staff
The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach
Highly enjoyable with several coming of age stories. It's set in a small college community in Wisconsin with a background of baseball as a metaphor for life.
The Language of Flowers, by Vanessa Diffenbaugh
A moving story of a young woman whose gift for understand the meaning of flowers helps her overcome her past and learn how to love. A very powerful, beautiful work.
State of Wonder, by Ann Patchett
I felt transported by this book to the jungles of the Amazon. Fascinating and unpredictable and a unique read.
The Tiger's Wife, by Tea Obreht
A young doctor in a small Balkan country find secrets abound after the war. A mix of myth and reality. It's a beautifully written tale with several stories unfolding.
The Swallows of Kabul, by Yasmina Khadra
Readers who have an interest in Afghanistan as well as life in a repressive religious-based society will find The Swallows of Kabul a totally engaging book. Yasmina Khadra writes extremely well as he describes life in Taliban-controlled Kabul. Two married couples - Moshen and Zunaira and Atiq and Musarrat - are the main characters. Moshen happens to witness the stoning death of a woman convicted of prostitution and the aftermath of that event is the catalyst for Khadra's story. The desperation, bleakness, and rigorously-controlled life under the Taliban for these four are all vividly created for the reader to absorb. While a sad story at times, The Swallows of Kabul succeeds very well in holding the reader's attention to this compelling story. A twist at the end adds greatly to the power of the story. It is interesting to note that Yasmina Khadra is the nom de plume for Mohamed Moulessehoul, who was an officer in the Algerian army. He now lives and writes in southern France. The Swallows of Kabul is recommended for its skillful writing and interesting story and particularly for those who enjoyed reading The Kite Runner and Bookseller of Kabul. All three of these books are available at Greenwich Library.
The Calligrapher's Secret, by Rafik Schami
Fiction books written by Syrian authors are certainly few in number. However, the German-based, Syrian-born author Rafik Schami has written numerous books for children and adults and is a most-interesting writer. His previous book The Dark Side of Love, was enthusiastically reviewed in this column last year. The Calligrapher's Secret, published in 2010, again illustrates how engaging his writing can be. Set in Schami's native Damascus, a major part of the story revolves around Hamid Farsi, a Syrian calligrapher noted for his ornate and intricately drawn Arabic writing, and his beautiful wife Noura. The appointment of Nasri, a young Christian man, as an apprentice to Farsi becomes the catalyst for a series of dramatic events in those three lives. Schami's other characters are also richly drawn and add interesting dimensions to the narrative tale. Perhaps The Calligrapher's Secret is not equal to the epic scale of The Dark Side of Love, but it is a wonderful story. The strength of Schami's writing lies in his great ability to bring life within Damascus society in the 1950's vibrantly alive and that adds so much to the story. The Calligrapher's Secret is, like his previous book, highly recommended.
The Postmistress, by Sarah Blake
Sarah Blake, who interestingly holds a PhD in Victorian literature, has written a charming and winning story that takes place immediately prior to the entry of the United States into World War II. Her diverse characters are each affected by the war going on in Europe even though American troops are not yet engaged in the fighting. Iris James is the postmistress of the small town of Franklin, MA on the tip of Cape Cod. She knows all that goes on in Franklin and follows the lives of some interesting characters. Among them is the mysterious, seemingly German immigrant whom many view with suspicion. Then there is the self-appointed watch dog who patrols the Atlantic shore along Cape Cod for enemy submarines. Another leading character in Frankie Bard, a reporter who works with Edward R. Murrow in covering the war in Europe and broadcasts to her American audience. Blake skillfully brings the lives of these diverse characters together as she writes about the European theater of war as seen through Bard's eyes as well as how Americans on Cape Cod deal with the growing menace of war. The Postmistress is an engaging and enjoyable book.
Major Pettigrew's Last Stand, by Helen Simonson
Retired & widowed Major Pettigrew's younger brother Bertie has just died. On leaving for the funeral, he meets on his doorstep, Mrs. Ali, proprietor of a local food market and an English-born Pakistani. She is visiting him on an errand, but, seeing that he is in great distress and feeling unwell, she offers to drive him to the funeral. A friendship gradually flowers, based initially on their common love of literature, especially Kipling. It is complicated by the Major's rather unpleasant son, Mrs. Ali's nephew who works in the market and wants her to give it to him, local race prejudice, and their own sense of what is right and proper for each of them. Things reach a crisis at an Indian (Mughal) themed party at the local club, to which the Major has escorted Mrs. Ali, and Mrs. Ali leaves town to go live with family elsewhere. Eventually, the Major is encouraged to go visit Mrs. Ali on his way north to Scotland for a hunting party. What he finds there causes a crisis and forces him to make a decision about Mrs. Ali, which leads to an incident that nearly costs him his life. A charming love story and social commentary.
Innocent: A Kindle County Novel, by Scott Turow
For Scott Turow fans in particular, his newest book, Innocent: A Kindle County Novel, is not only the sequel to his wildly popular Presumed Innocent, but also another terrific story from this skillful writer. Rusty Sabich, the central character in Presumed Innocent, has been elected chief judge of Kindle County and is running for re-election. But, questionable death appears yet again in Rusty's life when his wife dies suddenly in bed. Mysteriously, Rusty remains in bed with her dead body for 24 hours before notifying authorities. At first, no action is taken. However, Tommy Molto, the district attorney involved in the previous book, begins to build a murder case against Rusty. The book takes off from there and the reader becomes totally engrossed. For those who have not read the previous book, more enjoyment might be found with Innocent if Presumed Innocent, which is also in the Greenwich Library's collection, is read first. Innocent is highly recommended. This reviewer hopes that Turow might have more plans for writing about Rusty's life in future books.
The Housekeeper and the Professor, by Yoko Ogawa
A lovely, quiet story of the development of a friendship among three unlikely people: the professor who is a mathematical genius but who, since a serious car accident, can only remember things for 80 minutes, so wears notes pinned all over his suit to remind him of important things; the housekeeper sent from an agency who, though uneducated, is quite intelligent and very sympathetic, learning to deal with the professor's forgetfulness and giving him the best care she can; the housekeeper's son who becomes a special joy for the professor. The professor spends his life solving math puzzles and introduces the other two to the beauty of numbers and math, sharing with them also a love of baseball.
Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley
Huxley's dystopian novel portrays a world where individuality and independent thought have been all but entirely bred out of society and replaced with an unrelenting need for social conformity. "Everybody belongs to everybody else". Human reproduction (outside of a cloning factory) is disallowed, and the concept of "family" is considered pornographic and pejorative. All forms of self-expression (including love) are deemed irrelevant and counter-productive to the aim of total social stability, and despite some amazing technological and medical advancements, even scientific progress has been subsumed to the cause of merely maintaining the status quo. People's lives consist of menial labor (for which they have been genetically engineered and brainwashed to find at least mildly challenging and interesting insofar as they are made content to keep doing it), sleeping around (everybody is expected to be the village bicycle), watching intellectually low-brow "feelies" (basically movies that appeal to all five physical senses) and playing lots of sports (tennis, anyone?). And for those occasions when such social opiates just aren't enough, there's always the hallucinogenic, hangover-free and state-sanctioned drug soma for taking a holiday from reality. Even death has been denigrated to the point where not even a whiff of fear or curiosity are involved; you die, your basic elements get recycled, and that's it. How can anyone truly care about death (or life, for that matter) when the sum of their lives amounts to so much meaningless action and no sense of self?
I see Huxley's Brave New World as relevant today as ever. It speaks to the dangers of over-reaction, of suppressing everything that makes us individuals just so we can all reach some common equilibrium of contentedness. It also speaks to the fallacy of consuming for the sake of consumption, something to think about the next time you hear some media talking-head nattering on about the health of our nation as relating to how much crap people are buying. And let's not forget propaganda and manipulation of the media, especially in this era of certain media outlets getting away with passing off opinions and outright lies as facts just to serve their own political agendas. Let Huxley's classic and cautionary tale serve as a fresh warning knell for our own day and age.
Old Man's War, by John Scalzi
Imagine living out your life on Earth well into your golden years in relative peace and normalcy, except that when you turn seventy-five you suddenly have the option of transferring your consciousness to a new, younger body. Sounds terrific, right? The only hitch is that to get your new body you have to enlist in the mysterious Colonial Defense Force for anywhere from two to ten years, and you can never return to Earth. Doesn't sound so bad, considering the traditional alternative of growing older and dealing with the increasing infirmities of advancing age until you eventually expire; and after you leave CDF service they'll even give you a plot of land on a colony world where you can begin an entirely new second life. Still sounds like a pretty good deal, doesn't it? Sure, but once you've joined up and you're all settled into your brand-spanking-new, genetically-engineered and heavily modified bad-ass of a new body, you find out that the universe is a crowded and hostile place and that every xenophobic impulse you might ever have had is about to be entirely validated as you travel to strange new worlds, meet interesting and exotic alien species, and kill them (before they kill you first). Oh, and your chances of survival past a full tour of duty are pretty abysmal. It's still a shot at a brand new life though, and in addition to your arsenal of bio-engineered enhancements and cutting-edge weaponry you have what is probably your greatest asset--seventy-five years' worth of wisdom and life experience to help guide you through the ensuing mayhem. For John Perry, new recruit of the CDF, that might almost be enough...
John Scalzi has crafted an enthralling, fast-paced sci-fi tale with his Hugo-nominated Old Man's War. Readers may pick up strong echoes of Heinlein and Haldeman, but Scalzi borrows concepts from a number of sources (Finley-Day and Gibbons' Rogue Trooper comes immediately to mind) and uses them all to infuse his story with fresh perspective and new twists on some time-tested ideas. The narrative itself is brisk, being light on exposition and heavy on action. This one's a real page-turner.
Spies of the Balkans, by Alan Furst
World War II has always been a treasure chest of intriguing scenarios for novelists. Alan Furst has carved out a much-admired niche for himself as a writer of World War II espionage fiction. His latest book, Spies of the Balkans, is a gripping tale set in the early days of the war, before the Germans invaded, in Salonika, Greece. Costa Zannis, a policeman on the force in Salonika, is faced with many puzzling situations related to the real possibility that war will soon come to his homeland. He becomes involved in a network that smuggles Jewish refugees from Germany to freedom in Turkey. Spies, possibly for the Allies or Axis, could be lurking all over Salonika and he tries to unmask the true intentions of these sinister characters. The weak-willed Italians attempt an invasion of Greece, but Zannis and his fellow Greeks defeat them. Then Zannis realizes the Germans will come and he must formulate plans as to how he will protect his family as well as fight the Germans. Spies of the Balkans is a great story and Furst creates an atmosphere of suspense and intrigue in Greece and has populated his book with wonderfully human characters who are facing the German onslaught. This book is highly recommended.
The Kitchen House, by Kathleen Grissom
The American south antebellum world has always had an attractive and strong lure for both authors and readers alike. Kathleen Grissom, with her novel The Kitchen House, has made yet another addition to that genre with a twist that makes the story a unique reading experience. Her main character, Lavinia, is a white indentured servant who ends up serving the Pyke family at Twelve Oaks in southern Virginia. Lavinia arrives as a small child and is put under the care of the household slaves, who quickly become her beloved family. Even though she is indentured, her skin color creates a different path on the plantation for her. While her heart lies with the slaves, she is forced to adapt to a different reality as she grows up. The narration of The Kitchen House bounces between Lavinia's voice and that of Belle, a slave who runs the kitchen house. Set in the early 19th Century, Grissom skillfully writes of life at Twelve Oaks with the grotesque horrors of the slave system effecting so much of the dramatic developments. The presence of Lavinia makes the story different from so many other novels of the antebellum south. The Kitchen House is highly recommended and the Touchtone Book edition in the Greenwich Library collection contains an interview with Grissom that is very interesting. She tells how she came to write and conduct her research for this book. Interestingly, two readers of The Kitchen House who were encouraged to read it by this reviewer had the same reaction as the reviewer after finishing the book. All are hoping Grissom writes a sequel as the story ends in 1810 and there is great interest in what happens to these characters in the Civil War.
The Red Queen, by Philippa Gregory
Readers who relish historical fiction, especially those novels set in medieval England, will rejoice with The Red Queen, Philippa Gregory's newest installment in her "Cousins War" series. Set during the Fifteenth Century War of the Roses, The Red Queen centers on the life of Margaret Beaufort, a member of the Lancaster family who is considered to be the matriarch of the Tudor Dynasty by her marriage to Edmund Tudor. That union led to the birth of the child who would become Henry VII. Margaret's life was one of constant scheming, plotting, and planning to further her son's rise to the English throne. This divisive era in English history pitted two branches of the Plantagenet family, Margaret's Lancasters (using a red rose in their family crest) and the Yorks (known for using a white rose in their crest) , against each other with each hoping to capture the prize of the English throne. Gregory does her usual wonderful job of making this complicated historical time come alive by making her characters larger than life and full of endless energy to advance their candidates to as ruler of England. This reviewer suggests The Red Queen can best be enjoyed by reading it shortly after completing Gregory's previous book The White Queen. Both are totally winning and terrific books!
The 19th wife, by David Ebershoff
David Ebershoff has written an absorbing two-track story that combines historical fiction with a fiction tale, each of which keeps the reader's attention throughout the book. His subject in both stories is the polygamy practiced in a sect of the Mormon religion. Ebershoff begins with a modern-day fiction story about Jordan Scott, a young man who has rejected his Mormon faith, but is drawn back into that world when his mother, one of many wives to his polygamous father, is accused of murdering his father. Scott adamantly believes that his mother is innocent and tries to help her attorney show she did not commit murder. Interwoven with Scott's story is the recounting of the real-life Ann Eliza Young struggles to publicize the evils she experienced as the supposed "19th wife" of the Nineteenth Century Mormon leader Brigham Young. Young gained national fame as she divorced Young and traveled across America, including a stop in Washington when she testified before Congress, telling packed lecture halls about the polygamy practiced by some Mormons. Drawing on historical sources, Ebershoff's depiction of Young's involvement with the Mormon religion is terrifically interesting. Equally, Jordan Scott's story is often witty and makes for great reading. The 19th Wife is a thoroughly engaging story!
Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, by Jamie Ford
An endearing and truly bittersweet tale of loyalty and friendship, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is set in Seattle and centered on the often traumatic circumstances faced by Asian youths during World War II. The two main characters . both American born of Chinese and Japanese parents, often face traumatic circumstances because of their Asian backgrounds. Henry is Chinese and his elementary school best friend Keiko is Japanese. Henry's father strongly pressures him to Americanize and fit in, even to the point of insisting he wear an "I am Chinese" button so he is not seen as being Japanese. Keiko and her family are seen as enemies of the United States and sent to an internment camp during the war years.
Ford splits the story development between Henry's childhood years as he tries to remain close to his pal Keiko and his adult years when he tries to reconcile the path his life took with his yearning to discover Keiko's fate after her family's confinement in the resettlement camp for Japanese-Americans. Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is a touching and revealing story of a segment of American society during the World War II years. This book is highly recommended.
Cutting for Stone, by Abraham Verghese
What pure reading pleasure awaits those who start Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese! This is a wonderfully written and totally engaging story by a writer who is a terrific story teller. His strongly drawn characters are mostly all involved in the practice of medicine in a small hospital in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Both worlds come vividly alive as the reader can become totally immersed in the medical issues facing the small staff at Missing Hospital. At the same time, the Ethiopia in the last years of the reign of Emperor Haile Selassie and the succeeding governments is, probably for most readers, a little-known setting and Verghese's wonderfully descriptive writing creates an interesting world in which so much of his story occurs. The main characters are twin boys, Marion and Shiva Stone, who are born to an Indian nun, who is a nursing assistant at Missing Hospital. Their lives are intertwined with medicine, the political developments of Ethiopia once Haile Selassie is disposed in a coup in 1974, and their personal struggles to deal with, among other issues, an absent birth-father and their professional development as medical practitioners. Cutting for Stone is an absorbing and wonderful book that is highly recommended.
My Name is Mary Sutter, by Robin Oliveira
Mary Sutter is a young, headstrong midwife from Albany, NY who dreams of becoming a surgeon in 19th-century America. Unable to obtain a higher education and determined to overcome the prejudices against women becoming doctors, Mary leaves home and travels to Washington, D.C., to pursue her medical career by caring for wounded soldiers during the Civil War. Every step of the way she faces unimaginable odds, but she rises to each challenge and overcomes great obstacles. The novel is factually accurate in both the historical descriptions of the Civil War, and medical practices from that era, and has strong characters throughout the book.
Someone Knows My Name, by Lawrence Hill
Originally published in Canada as The Book of Negroes, Someone Knows My Name is historical fiction at its very best. Lawrence Hill has based his wonderfully written book on an actual document from American history that listed blacks living during the American Revolutionary War era who were rewarded for being loyal to the British by being transported to Canada. Those who had been slaves were supposedly emancipated from slavery and could begin life anew in Canada. Aminata Diallo, his main character, goes from a wonderfully secure and idyllic childhood in her West African village of Bayo to the horrors of being captured by slavers and then shipped to South Carolina and sold to an owner of an indigo plantation. Her life becomes a nightmare of slavery - abusive owners, horrible living conditions and heartbreaking personal traumas. However, Aminata is strong and somehow she proves herself to be a survivor. She eventually finds her way to New York City, Canada and lands in London in the final days of her life. Hill's writing is filled with historical detail of the terror and dreadfulness of slavery as a part of American history. Most interesting is his having Aminata being one of the writers of actual Book of Negroes. This gives the reader a direct accounting of the creation of that remarkable document. By the way, there is a copy of it at The New York Public Library. In all, Someone Knows My Name is a remarkably powerful and moving story that illuminates a disturbing chapter in United States history. This book is highly recommended.
Call for the Dead, by John Le Carre
Would a man about to commit suicide leave a request to be called at 8:30 the next morning? Or fix himself a cup of cocoa and not drink it? In the first of Le Carre's books, George Smiley is introduced. Asked to explain why the man he had interviewed that day, because of an anonymous tip that he was a spy, was so distraught as to kill himself afterwards. It's a puzzle because the interview was very friendly. Smiley liked the man and was sure he was innocent; they had parted on the best of terms. So Smiley sets out to prove it was not suicide and finds himself involved, of course, in international intrigue.
My Name is Memory, by Ann Brashares
Daniel's soul is reborn into many lives over the centuries, and he remembers every one of them. During Daniel's time as a soldier in 541 AD, he first encounters a young woman in North Africa. Their meeting has a life altering impact on him which continues in his future lives. Over hundreds of years and many, many lives, their souls meet again and again as different people in different countries. She is Sophia during the year 776 in Cappadocia, she is Constance in England in WWI, she is now Lucy in modern day Virginia...and he is always Daniel. Daniel and a few other souls (not all of them good souls) remember their past lives, but Lucy does not remember. She struggles with her attraction to this mysterious Daniel, while he struggles over whether they were never meant to be together. A welcome summer read by the author of The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. Fans of Audrey Niffenegger's The Time Travelers Wife will be clamoring to read this planned trilogy by Brashares, and it will be a hit with adult and teen readers.
Brava, Valentine, by Adriana Trigiani
Adriana Trigiani has done it again with her latest novel; Brava, Valentine; the second of a series following Very Valentine. When Valentine Roncalli's grandmother gets remarried and moves to Italy, it is up to Valentine to take over the family business of making hand crafted wedding shoes. From the streets of Greenwich Village, to Italy, and Buenos Aires, family secrets and scandals are uncovered, relationships are threatened, and plots take unexpected twists. Throw a little romance in the mix, and things get even more turbulent.
Trigiani does a terrific job with offbeat, loveable characters, and she also provides beautiful well-written descriptions of locations. I recommend reading Very Valentine first so you can understand more about the character's relationships, which are key to the storyline. A very warm, funny novel that is sure to keep you captivated from cover to cover.
Noah's Compass, by Anne Tyler
Anne Tyler may be the Belle of Baltimore, but she is also a national treasure. Noah's Compass is Tyler's eighteenth novel. In her trademark style she creates a character who is searching for meaning and wholeness in life. Liam Pennywell, age 61, is forced into early retirement from his teaching job at a private school in Baltimore. He moves from his roomy apartment near the school into a nondescript apartment complex near the beltway. On the first night in his new apartment he is robbed and knocked unconscious. He awakes in the hospital with no memory of the night he was attacked. Although the rest of his memory is intact, he obsesses about the night he can't remember. Surrounded by his bossy and unsympathetic daughters, an exasperated ex-wife and indifferent sister, Liam wants to remember what he has forgotten. He meets Eunice, who works as a "rememberer" for an aging businessman who needs prompting in social situations. Liam is entranced by the romantic idea of having Bernice help him to remember the missing night of his attack. But what Liam needs to remember is the context of his own life before the further diminishments of age wash him further away. As Tyler writes, Liam "has a glancing relationship with his own life." I'm glad I got a glimpse of Liam, and all of Anne Tyler's characters.
Cluny Brown, by Margery Sharp
Amusing story of upstairs-downstairs set in pre-WWII England . Cluny, from a very respectable, lower-class family, doesn't know her place. To the consternation of the uncle who raised her, she takes tea at the Ritz just to see what it's like. Other incidents lead her uncle to place her in service as a parlor-maid (untrained) in an English country manor. She is courted by the highly respected local chemist and seems to have found her place. But... Her story is interwoven with that of the manor family and of their guest - a Polish writer who is persona non grata at home and in Nazi Germany. Very enjoyable.
There's Something About St. Tropez, by Elizabeth Adler
Quirky characters abound in Elizabeth Adler's sequel to One of Those Malibu Nights. Private Investigator Mac Reilly, star of a popular television mystery show, and his fiancée, Sunny Alvarez, are looking forward to spending a month at a villa they've rented in St. Tropez. Sunny arrives first, at the doors of an abandoned villa, only to discover that they've been scammed, along with a number of other tourists who thought they were renting a fancy house on the French Riviera. The characters include Belinda Lord, the estranged wife of a Russian mobster, Texas rancher Billy Bashford, and his eight-year-old daughter, Laureen. After Mac arrives, Sunny and Mac move to a nearby Hotel, where they help protect Belinda from her nasty husband and become entangled in some art thefts in St. Tropez, a murder, and a number of other mysteries that seem to surround Villa Chez La Violette. The author does such a fantastic job describing the scenery of St. Tropez that I could almost smell the salt air and the suntan lotion while reading this book!
The White Queen: A Cousin's War Novel , by Philippa Gregory
Fans of historical fiction, and especially those who are enthralled with medieval England, will rejoice that Philippa Gregory has begun a new series which centers on the Plantagenets, who ruled England from the 12th through the 15th centuries. The White Queen is Elizabeth Woodville, a commoner who married Edward IV, a member of the York branch of the Plantagenets. Gregory spins Elizabeth's life's tale with all the historically rich detail and interesting writing that has endeared her to legions of readers for years. The subtitle, "A Cousin's War Novel", captures so much of Plantagenet rule over England as various branches of that royal family battled each other for control of the English throne. Yet, with her customary skill, Gregory makes Elizabeth's years as the White Queen and Edward's warring with his royal cousins in The War of the Roses come alive so well. The ending leaves one waiting for the next installment. As with her series on the Tudors, who followed the Plantagenets in ruling England, Gregory gives the reader a wonderfully entertaining and rewarding reading experience.
Cairo Modern, by Naguib Mahfouz
This novel is very fascinating. The main character is a sworn nihilist; he experiences a shift of ideologies. He grows a heart and feels emotions as a result of a sudden forced involvement with Ishan; a girl from the university whom he had always coveted. The main character becomes a hypocrite and enjoys the "high societal life." His ambitions grow larger, and then losses it all in one vengeful blow from a neighbor. Based in the 1930's, Cairo Modern is an intriguing read. You won't be able to put the book down. Some of the character's 180 degree life changes, as well as a 360 change of the main character will keep you nail biting!
The Dark Side of Love, by Rafik Schami
What a thrill for book lovers to find an author who can make a wonderfully readable mutigenerational tale in a little-written about society come totally alive for over 800 pages! Rafik Schami has truly done so with his novel The Dark Side of Love. Set in Twentieth Century Syrian Christian society, The Dark Side of Love follows the rivalries, conflicts and love affairs of two fictitious clans, the Shahins and the Mushtaks. Interwoven into the drama of the lives of clan members are the events of their times in Syria : the rise and fall of various Syrian military and civilian dictators, the stresses of being Christian in a predominately Muslim state, the terrible price dissenters pay for being politically active in a repressive society, and other aspects of Syrian history. Schami has divided his story into books and within these books he, at times, uses vignettes, to relate character and plot developments. Schami has likened his book to a huge mosaic in which each individual piece has, when taken together, created his story. Reminiscent of the sweepingly panoramic Russian novels of the Nineteenth Century, The Dark Side of Love is strongly recommended as a terrifically entertaining book that is filled with skillfully-crafted characters, story lines and the history of an extremely interesting Middle Eastern society.
Ghosts, by César Aira
Aira is an Argentine author, who enjoys considerable celebrity in his own country, but remains relatively unknown in the US. Ghosts, a mere 139 pages in length, is the story of an enclave of mostly Chilean immigrant laborers and their relatives, who are brought together by construction work at the site of future condominiums for the affluent in Buenos Aires. The entire story takes place on New Year's Eve and the weather is swelteringly hot. The eponymous ghosts are mostly peripheral to the action but invoke the magical realism of other Latino authors such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Isabelle Allende, albeit in a more muted manner. One charmingly whimsical passage describes the alcoholic construction foreman's discovery that cheap wine can be cooled and converted to a vintage fit for the table of the very rich by inserting a bottle into the thorax of any of the ghosts in the vicinity. Patri, the book's central character, is a dreamy adolescent girl of 15 whose fascination with the spectral inhabitants of the site ultimately brings the book to its abrupt denouement.
Something Missing, by Matthew Dicks
Something Missing is a clever twist on the harmless second story man. Martin Railsback is an obsessive-compulsive underachiever who works the least number of hours as a barista to cover himself with health insurance. The rest of his time is spent stealing from his long-time "clients". These "clients" are unaware that Martin breaks into their homes and steals because he has an elaborate system of cataloging their possessions, learning their schedules and shopping habits. Most of Martin's thefts are from the pantry, extra boxes of rice, or desk supplies and toiletries, but occasionally he lifts something of value that according to his calculations won't be missed. He is able to support himself in this clandestine manner and everything works beautifully until a simple mishap forces him out of his comfort zone to correct his mistake. And when he fears one of his long time "clients" is in danger, he breaks every self-imposed rule to help someone he's never met but knows completely.
The Faithful Spy, by Alex Berenson
Originally published in 2006, Faithful Spy was not only Alex Berenson's debut as a writer of espionage thrillers, but the first in his series featuring the American spy John Welles. Berenson created a very intriguing plot with Welles imbedded in al-Qaeda and seemingly accepted as a fellow terrorist by members of that group. Some of his American handlers begin to question where his true loyalties lie as time goes on and Welles has no communication with any American governmental agency. The dual track-story takes off as the Americans try to locate Welles after he accepts an al-Qaeda assignment to participate in a terror attack in the United States. Berenson's background as a Middle East reporter for the New York Times is strongly reflected as he writes about al-Qaeda camps, the mountainous terrain of Afghanistan, the passionate beliefs among the terrorists that they are performing the will of Allah, and the inner workings of the United States government. The characters in the story are equally well created. The Faithful Spy is a great read and made this reviewer want to read his subsequent books with the character of John Welles, The Ghost War and The Silent Man. Both of these titles are also available at The Greenwich Library.
The Gift of Rain, by Tan Twan Eng
Tan Twan Eng makes a great literary debut with this fictional account of Phillip Hutton's life on the island of Penang, off the coast of Malaysia. Set primarily during the brutal Japanese occupation of Malaysia in World War II, Eng writes an absorbing tale of intrigue, betrayal and survival of Hutton and his family. Half British and Chinese, Hutton is anchored in the tradition of a colonial British family, but is drawn to the powers of Oriental philosophy through his friendship with a mysterious Japanese visitor to the island before the war shatters his existence. Eng is a talented writer who vividly creates Hutton's world. The characters are strongly drawn, the historical detail makes for absorbing reading and the island of Penang is beautifully created. The Gift of Rain is highly recommended.
The Castaways: A Novel,
by Elin Hilderbrand
If you plan on heading to the beach or would like to curl up with a book on a rainy day during your vacation, The Castaways by Elin Hilderbrand is an engaging and quick read that takes place on Nantucket. While there are plenty of plot twists, flash backs, and eight characters to follow through the novel, you get a very good picture of the personalities involved and their obvious and not so obvious relationships. You find out immediately that two of the characters are not actively in the story but they are an integral part of the life of the remaining six. Each chapter of the book continues the story of one of the characters and you really develop a picture who these people are and why they live in Nantucket. If you want to move on to other books by Ms. Hilderbrand, just pick up Nantucket Nights, Summer People: A Novel, or The Beach Club.
The Story of Edgar Sawtelle,
by David Wroblewski
Anyone looking for a unique and totally-engrossing reading experience should be thrilled with The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski. Quite surprisingly, this is Wroblewski's debut novel and it deserves all the rave reviews it gathered after it was published in 2008. Wroblewski set this remarkably engrossing story in his native Wisconsin and his great love and knowledge of that area is so evident in his writing. This is indeed the story of Edgar Sawtelle, who was born mute to a couple who devoted their lives to raising Sawtelle dogs, a fictional breed of dog Wroblewski created and is essential to the story. Edgar's life becomes a roller coaster of emotions and trials as his story is told. Whether he is describing the notoriously cold and snowy Wisconsin winters or the relationships Edgar develops in his life, Wroblewski's writing is terrifically descriptive and pulls the reader into Edgar's life. In particular, the glorious bond between dog and human becomes so real and tangible for the reader. This is highly recommended and would be a great candidate for a book club selection.
by David Baldacci
With all of the interest in the current First Family in the White House, Baldacci's latest book has a catchy title. This time the Camel Club members are not on the scene but Baldacci brings back the duo of Sean King and Michelle Maxwell (former secret service agents) and other memorable characters. There are a number of subplots that are tracking along with the main story line of the kidnapping of the niece of the First Lady and the murder of the girl's mother. The First Lady engages King and Maxwell to locate her niece and find out what is behind the kidnapping since she is receiving cryptic letters at the local post office. Peeling back the layers of the story you encounter a second kidnapping victim, infidelity, national security issues, a vendetta that involves a character from Alabama, paternity questions, and a second murder. Baldacci is successful in leading you down a path and making you think that you know how the story is going to turn out but then he leads you right up to the last few pages before you start to pull all of the pieces together.
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society received much praise when it was published in 2008 and it is easy to understand why it has become such a popular book. During a research trip to England, Mary Ann Shaffer, by chance, read about the Nazi occupation of Guernsey during World War II and became fascinated by that history. Eventually, she wrote this book with the help of her niece Annie Barrows. Using the literary device of letters written among a group of individuals, the aspects of life on Guernsey during the occupation are revealed. The "literary society" was formed as a way residents of the island could meet and seemingly avoid the scrutiny of the German occupiers. At their meetings, they could ban together and remain strong under German rule, which was harsh and cruel at times. Shaffer and Barrows have populated the book with some wonderfully eccentric and lively characters and they make the story come alive. While this reader wanted to know more about war-time Guernsey, this book has many charms and is an interesting reading experience.
Hedge Fund Wives,
by Tatiana Boncompagni
Hedge Fund Wives is a behind the scenes look at the elite life of a hedge fund wife, and the sacrifices they must make in order to get and hold on to the gold ring. When Marcy Emerson's husband John is recruited to New York City as a hedge fund manager, their perfect life together begins to unravel. Marcy feels like a fish out of water when she is pulled into a world of over-the-top baby showers, glamorous beauty treatments and decadent shopping sprees. A closer look at this opulent lifestyle shows how miserable some of the wives really are, and what lengths they would go through to keep their positions in the country club hierarchy. Once John dumps Marcy for a younger, blonder wife, Marcy must learn how to become independent and survive on her own. She also finds out who her true friends are. This was a very entertaining read filled with power, secrets, scandals and revenge!
by Roberto Bolano
The last novel written by Roberto Bolano (The Savage Detectives) before his death in 2004, 2666 (recommended to me by a very astute colleague) is arguably the most ambitious, moving and compelling novel I've read since James Joyce's Ulysses. Like Joyce's work, 2666 is rife with underlying themes and hidden symbolism. (One critic has already suggested that the title, which is never referred to or mentioned in the book, is a reference to the biblical exodus from Egypt, which took place 2,666 years after the Creation, and is seen as a period of spiritual redemption.) 2666 is divided into five "books", titled "parts". Throughout the novel, there is a sense of mounting violence and terror, with the recurrent subplot of a series of murders of young women in the fictional Mexican town of Santa Teresa (possibly the real-life Ciudad Juarez), always present in the background (and coming to a head in Book Four). Here are brief summaries of the five books: The Part About The Critics focuses on four literary critics searching for the reclusive German novelist Benno von Archimboldi, which leads them to Santa Teresa. Along the way, the Critics begin to discover some troubling facts about themselves and each other. The Part About Amalfitano details the emotional and mental decline of a professor at the University of Santa Teresa (whom the Critics met in the previous book) and his concern over his daughter during the murder spree. The Part About Fate concerns an American journalist (nicknamed "Oscar Fate") sent to cover a boxing match who winds up getting involved in the murders and meeting Amalfitano's daughter. The Part About The Crimes is the most heartbreaking and, despite the flat, journalistic prose (which recounts an amazingly large number of murders in an omniscient point-of-view), emotionally stirring section of the novel. The reader feels an increasing sense of despair and hopelessness as we follow the detectives (and assorted interested parties) investigating the seemingly never-ending series of murders The Part About Archimboldi returns to the subplot of the first book, here recounting the life and experiences of Hans Reiter, a Prussian born in 1920, and his connection to both Archimboldi and the murders. In this final section, a tone of redemption begins to manifest itself, but just barely. To say anymore about Bolano's novel would ruin the experience that awaits the reader. 2666 is a stunning and powerful work that, despite a seemingly downbeat tone, ultimately rewards the reader with one of the richest literary experiences they'll ever have.
Sea of Poppies ,
by Amitav Ghosh
Sea of Poppies is the thrilling first installment of a projected trilogy of novels which follow the sea travels of a great 19th century sailing vessel, the Ibis. Amitav Ghosh creates a fascinating world which is populated with strongly detailed characters and events that are connected with the Ibis. He is a true master story teller and readers can relish the powerful tale he tells. Mainly set in India of 1830, the lives of many characters eventually cross paths with the Ibis. Among them are a peasant widow who narrowly escapes being burned on a pyre when her husband dies, a debt-ridden Indian land owner, the second mate of the Ibis, who is an American of mixed blood and fled the antebellum United States, English colonists in India making huge profits from the opium trade, and so many others. Short-listed for the 2008 Man Booker Prize, Sea of Poppies is a wonderfully creative and masterfully-written novel. After finishing the last sentence in the book, this reviewer wanted to immediately grab the next installment to once again be transported in time and read a terrific story. Sea of Poppies is highly and enthusiastically recommended.
Moscow Rules ,
by Daniel Silva
Fans of Daniel Silva's series of international thrillers featuring Gabriel Allon will be tremendously rewarded with yet another thoroughly engaging tale of intrigue with his latest book Moscow Rules. In this adventure, Allon is pulled from his Italian honeymoon into a web of treacherous international arms dealing, which could have dire implications for the state of Israel. Evil and manipulating Russians are at the center of this deadly business and they operate with the new "Moscow Rules" of the post-Soviet era. Silva's "Author Notes" and "Acknowledgements" at the end of the book show readers that the author has done his homework well and incorporated many true scenarios into Moscow Rules. This book is highly recommended not only for fans of the character Gabriel Allon, but also for those who enjoy an excellent thriller filled with Twenty First century political issues.
A Guide to the Birds of East Africa,
by Nicholas Drayson
Charming and funny tale, set in Kenya, of the rivalry between two old schoolmates, Mr. Malik (our hero and a man of unimpeachable integrity) and Harry Khan (a rich, flashy ex-patriate), for the privilege of inviting Rose Mbikwa (leader of weekly bird walks) to the Annual Hunt Club Ball. Fellow members of the Asadi Club design a competition to determine which of them will do so. This competition means whoever spots the most species of birds during one week, under very strict rules, will be the winner. Harry takes an easy lead, thanks to his ability to charter an airplane and hire a car to take him to places birds in great variety were known to be. Mr. Malik is handicapped by the theft of his car, attack by bandits, and by his secret life which he doesnʼt feel he can sacrifice to such a frivolous project.
The Other Queen,
by Philippa Gregory
For those who have already enthusiastically read Philippa Gregory's books in her Tudor series, with The Other Boleyn Girl being her most popular, The Other Queen will be a real treat of pure reading enjoyment. And, for those readers who have not read Gregory's books, this should entice them to read her other fine works, especially those historical novels associated with the Tudor era of English history. "The Other Queen" is Mary, Queen of Scots who, as a cousin to Queen Elizabeth I, had what many in England considered a claim to the English throne that was more valid than that of Queen Elizabeth I. As the book begins, Mary has been exiled to England from Scotland and is literally under house arrest by Elizabeth as a way to control her movement and limit her ability to campaign for the English throne. Her "hosts" are the Earl of Shrewsbury and his wife Bess of Hardwick. Gregory uses three voices to tell her story : those of the Earl, Bess and Queen Mary. The Earl and Bess are at first delighted to be chosen by Queen Elizabeth to house Mary. They think this is a true sign of wonderful recognition and favor by their Queen. Yet, reality sets in as Elizabeth keeps Mary captive at their house and they have to cover much of the expense involved in that situation. Their life is further complicated when the Earl begins to fall in love with Mary. Thus, resentment sets in as their time guarding Mary drags on. The third voice is that of Mary, who is desperate for freedom and the crowns of England and Scotland that she adamantly believes are hers. Gregory is a master at creating terrifically readable, well researched and enjoyable books. For those who want to read a more detailed life of Mary, Queen of Scots, Antonia Fraser's Mary Queen of Scots is highly recommended.
by Mark Alpert
Mark Albert, a contributing writer to Scientific American, makes a great debut as a book author with his thriller Final Theory. Albert has created an intriguing character in David Swift, a physics professor at Columbia University who has also written about Albert Einstein and his famous theories. Swift is dramatically called to the bedside of an older theoretical physicist who received a brutal beating from a mysterious intruder in his home. This physicist, who had worked with Einstein, confides in Swift before he dies, that Einstein's unified final theory had been fully developed by Einstein, contrary to the belief that it had not. Swift is also given clues as to how to find this theory. As the story develops, there are many competing factions, government agents and terrorists along with Swift who are searching for the facts about Einstein's final theory. Albert's great skill is to make the scientific theories, which are a great part of the story, understandable to the layman. This is a great, fun thriller to read.
April in Paris,
by Michael Wallner
In his first novel, Michael Wallner has written a highly readable tale set in Nazi-occupied Paris during World War II. Corporal Roth, a young soldier in the SS, speaks such perfect French he can pass as a true Parisian. While he serves as a translator for the SS during brutal interrogations, he also wanders the streets of Paris searching for escape from the horrors he sees while on duty. He meets a charming French girl, Chantal, and falls in love. With Wallner's good writing skills, even the bleak conditions of occupied Paris can be a romantic background for a love story. Yet, the novel takes many twists as Roth discovers more about Chantal and her links to the resistance. Thus, his situation becomes more complex as he serves the SS and grows deeply in love with Chantal. With the ending, yet another unexpected turn of events leaves the reader hooked on this story. April in Paris is a highly enjoyable book.
by Joseph Wambaugh
As one who has not read a Wambaugh book in a long time, this reviewer was reminded what a terrifically enjoyable reading experience Wambaugh's books can be. Hollywood Crows is the sequel to Hollywood Station and it is top-notch. In this tale, the "CROWS" are those police officers who work within the Community Relations Office of the Los Angeles Police Department. Wambaugh has created some wonderfully rich characters as officers in this office. The major subplot revolves around Ali Aziz, owner of a Sunset Boulevard strip club, and his ex-wife Margot, with whom he is engaged in a nasty custody battle. Various police officers from the CROWS come in contact with these two sleazy characters as well as others who make up the citizens within their neighborhoods of responsibility. Wambaugh knows this territory well from his days as a LAPD detective and that is reflected in his writing. Hollywood Crows is highly recommended!
Sailing to Capri,
by Elizabeth Adler
If you enjoy a romance/mystery novel with a little armchair travel mixed in, then "Sailing to Capri", by Elizabeth Adler is the right book for you! Daisy Keene is without a job, broke, and her love-life is non-existent when she meets a stranger at a party and he takes her to dinner. She spends the next five years working for Bob Hardwick, as his trusted assistant and friend, only to be devastated when he is killed, and she suspects it was murder. Daisy's encounter with private investigator Harry Montana, who is investigating Hardwick's death, also has an impact on her life. Per Hardwick's last wishes, a group of suspects is assembled and invited on a cruise to Capri for the reading of the will. Sparks fly and personalities clash as secrets are revealed and past indiscretions are exposed. Amidst the beauty of Sorrento and the fashionable glitz of Saint-Tropez, readers are led on several high-sea adventures as the fabulous yacht moves steadily toward Capri. The author borrows from Agatha Christie when she assembles the suspects and allows the killer to be revealed with surprising twists and turns. I enjoyed this book so much that I have read four more of the author's other works, and intend to read them all!
by Joe Dunthorne
This debut novel is the next in line on the long list of great novels about adolescence. 15 year-old Oliver Tate has a lot on his mind; he's convinced his parent's marriage is on the rocks, which causes him to undertake devious methods of monitoring their sex life. He's got a new girlfriend named Jordana; she's a handful. Plus, there are the usual high school dramas to contend with. What's a boy to do? In Oliver's case he makes a series of grand misjudgments and poor decisions, some comical and others downright foolish. He is both an unreliable narrator and cheeky hero. He's both full of himself and frequently clueless...but at least he's trying. Although veering rather closely to Sue Townsend's Adrian Mole series, which covers similar ground and shares the diary form Dunthorne uses in this book, Submarine strikes a more realistic tone. Life in the Welsh coastal city of Swansea is like life anywhere else, it seems. Dunthorne also manages to rise above the sappiness that can often surface in novels about teenagers. Oliver Tate imagines he has quite a bit to overcome. Once his psychic victory is at hand, it's put forth by Dunthorne with a calm and gently funny scene featuring Oliver and family, at ease...at least for the time being.
City of Thieves,
by David Benioff
This new novel has received a lot of great reviews for David Benioff. He has also gained great notoriety as a screenwriter, most recently for The Kite Runner. City of Thieves begins with a screenwriter talking with his grandfather and asking about the elder's experiences living through the brutal siege of Leningrad by the Germans during World War II. When pressed for details, the grandfather tells his grandson, "you're a writer. Make it up." From there, the story shifts to the Leningrad during the days when the Germans surrounded that city and attempted to starve and bomb Leningrad and the Russians into submission. Lev Beniov is young, idealistic and stayed in Leningrad after his other family members fled to supposed safety in the Russian interior. His adventures become the center of the story. Fate leads him to be arrested and interrogated by a Russian colonel along with Kolya, a deserter from the Russian army. An unlikely pair thrown together during days of war, Beniov and Kolya are promised freedom if they can accomplish the seemingly impossible mission of finding a dozen eggs in the ravaged city as a personal favor for the colonel. Determined to accomplish that task to escape the Russian army's grasp, they wander through sections of Leningrad and the surrounding area and witness the horrendous suffering during the siege. Benioff has created a very interesting and readable novel and is recommended reading, especially for those interested in this subject. By the way, Benioff gives great acknowledgement and praise to Harrison Salisbury's acclaimed account of this event, The 900 Days: The Siege of Leningrad. It is also in the Greenwich Library's collection.
This Charming Man,
by Marian Keyes
This Charming Man is Marian Keyes' ninth novel. The story is told from the point of view of four main characters each of whom has a fascinating back and side story that is woven into the increasingly serious and dark narrative thread with delicacy and humor. If you havn't read any of Marian Keyes' novels, I suggest that you start at the beginning with Watermelon. While This Charming Man stands alone, many of the earlier ones are based on one family. Some of the later novels refer to characters in earlier ones. Her books are also great audio-books. I find that listening only increases the emotional bonding between writer and reader.
Beautiful Children: A Novel,
by Charles Bock
Charles Bock has written a fantastic Las Vegas novel that is nearly devoid of gambling and casinos. The focus is primarily on those folks who live in Vegas; the kind of folks who are rarely mentioned when it comes to Vegas. Some work in casinos and nightclubs, some work in pawn shops and others don't really have much of a vocation. Some are down and out, some are confused but Bock manages to portray most of them with kindness. What makes them stand out is that they are rendered in a way that makes them believable. There's Newell Ewing, a 12 year old boy with ADHD and a comic book obsession. The story orbits around his sudden disappearance. Bock uses this disappearance to introduce a wide variety of characters; Newell's distraught parents, a stripper and her odious boyfriend, a pathetic comic book artist and a gang of street kids. These characters collide in the books amazing finale, which leaves the reader with more questions than answers. What's also stunning about this book is the way it's written. It is one of the most self-assured first novels I have ever read. Bock seems to choose his words thoughtfully. He has confidence in his characters and his story and apparently feels no need to show off like many debut novelists. And, despite it's grim setting and, at times, bleak outlook, there is a sort of hopefulness that underlies this book. Although it may not seem like it at first, most people end up doing the right thing...or at least trying very hard to do so.
The Emperor of Ocean Park,
by Stephen L. Carter
Published in 2002, The Emperor of Ocean Park was Stephen L. Carter's debut novel and it garnered praise and admiration from book reviewers. For devoted readers of fiction, it is often a treat to watch how authors grow as writers. While Carter has recently published his third novel, Palace Council, his first one is a great read and made this reader want to continue reading Carter's works. The Emperor of Ocean Park is set in the New England college town of Elm Harbor where the main character, Talcott Garland teaches law. The story Carter weaves is multi-layered: Garland's father had a widely-praised career as a judge, but was denied confirmation by government hearings for the supreme court due to possible illegal dealings and this event haunts Garland and his family, his private life and marriage enter a troubled time, a family tragedy remains unresolved years after it happened, and, among other situations, his career as a law professor becomes as rocky as other areas of his life. The reader becomes highly involved in Garland's tale and Carter writes very convincingly with entertaining touches of great sarcasm. It is easy to become totally absorbed in the book. Carter himself is a professor of law at Yale and this undoubtedly enriches and authenticates his writing.
Sail, by James Patterson
Even if you're not a beach person or beach book person, don't pass up a chance to read James Patterson's book, Sail. It's as fun a read as skipping a stone across a pond on a summer day. Recently married widow Anne Dunne has placed great hopes in a grand sailing trip with her children this summer. She wants the time away from her surgery practice aboard the family yacht to bring her closer to her children who are still dealing with the death of their father. Her new husband, lawyer Peter Carlyle must stay behind to work, so she invites her former brother-in-law Jake to help her with her children...who try suicide, drugs and non-compliance to get her attention. A series of disasters leave them fighting for their lives and stranded at sea. The reader knows who wants them dead, but is helpless to do anything but keep reading!!
The List of Adrian Messenger,
by Philip MacDonald
Adrian Messenger asks a friend in British Intelligence to locate 11 men, mentioning something about an unbelievable conspiracy. Adrian himself is on his way to California, but a bomb explodes on the plane. Adrian and two others survive, but Adrian dies before rescue, though he does mutter words repeatedly that may be a message. British Intelligence finds that all 11 men on Adrian's list are dead, killed in "accidents". The friend asks Anthony Gethryn to investigate. Eventually a plan to eliminate all members of the Brougham family so a distant American relative can become Marquis of Gleneyre is discovered, just in time to save the final person who stands in his way. Exciting mystery, deftly plotted.
Jack Kirby's Fourth World Omnibus Volumes One-Four,
by Jack Kirby, with Vince Colletta, Mike Royer, others
In 1970, after having co-created most of the classic Marvel Comics Group's flagship characters (Fantastic Four; The X-Men; Thor; Hulk; Silver Surfer; Captain America), artist Jack Kirby (1917-1994) left that company over financial and creative issues and relocated to DC Comics. There, using DC's Superman's Pal, Jimmy Olsen's comic as a launching pad, Kirby introduced new characters under the umbrella title The Fourth World (said title coined by an anonymous DC staffer). In several issues of Jimmy Olsen and spinoff titles The Forever People, The New Gods and Mister Miracle, the artist (and now writer-editor) chronicled the conflict between the planets "New Genesis" and "Apokolips" (ruled by the evil Darkseid), who used Earth (and Superman's hometown, "Metropolis") as a battleground to wage war against one another. The New Genesis inhabitants, which included Orion, Lightray, Mister Miracle (AKA "Scott Free") and the Forever People (as well as Superman and Jimmy Olsen), tried to prevent Darkseid (pronounced "Dark-side") and his minions from getting the "Anti-Life Equation" , by which all minds in the universe could be controlled by one being. But comic audiences were unreceptive to the multi-issue/series story arc, and Forever People and New Gods were cancelled in the summer of 1972, followed a year later by the demise of Mister Miracle (Kirby had already quit the Jimmy Olsen comic due to creative conflicts with the publishers over how to depict the Superman character). Kirby was eventually convinced to tie up most of the loose ends in 1985 with the graphic novel "The Hunger Dogs", included in volume four, where Orion (having been revealed as Darkseid's son in the last issue of New Gods) and Darkseid have their final confrontation (or so it seems...). Now, Kirby's entire Fourth World saga has been collected in four hardbound volumes, with unrelenting action and situations plus memorable characters (wait'll you meet such prizes as "Granny Goodness'" and "The Deep Six") as only Kirby can do them. All four volumes feature introductions by such authors as Grant Morrison and Glen David Gold, plus informative Afterwords by Mark Evanier (Kirby: King of Comics) on what really went on behind the scenes when these books were first put together, make this series a must for fans of innovative graphic novel storytelling.
by Daniel Silva
In his ninth novel and sixth in his series featuring Gabriel Allon, Silva shows that he is still writing top-notch political thrillers that can easily engross the reader. In The Messenger, an attack by a Saudi-backed terrorist group on the Vatican not only causes hundreds of civilian deaths, but gravely injures the Pope. Gabriel Allon, the art restorer who also happens to serve the Israeli government as an assassin, is recruited to find the perpetrators of this terrorist action. Interestingly enough, Allon's art expertise becomes a key resource in finding the person that was the mastermind of this crime. What makes Silva's books so intriguing is his timeliness of topics and the absolutely realistic style of writing. Allon's searching out and eliminating this threat to world stability echoes the headlines from current newspapers and well as current events. The Messenger is highly recommended for those who have enjoyed Silva's other books as well as an introduction to the world of Gabriel Allon for those who have not read any of Daniel Silva's books.
Whatever Makes You Happy,
by William Sutcliffe
Who would have thought you can have the perfect novel for thirty-something slacker wannabes and sixty-somethings who only want to be grannies and meddling mothers-in-law? Three mothers, tired of being ignored, or worse, patronized, decide to show up uninvited on their sons' door steps. They give themselves one week to reconnect with their sons and find out just who their sons are. The two worlds converge in a way that is both funny and sad. By the time you reach the denouement, you are hoping there is a sequel in the wings, or at least, a movie.
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle,
by Haruki Murakami
In his best work, Japanese author Haruki Murakami treads the finest of lines between reality and dream, myth and metaphor, detective novel and heroic saga in an incomparably beautiful and at times terrifying way, blending the non-fiction of the Manchukuo episode of World War II with the mundane, modern-day life of an unemployed man living in Tokyo. The protagonist's (Toru Okada) cat disappears at the beginning of the book and his simple, rather drab life is turned completely upside-down by his quest to regain the lost animal and the "something" that he lost along the path of his none-too-aware life. Along the way he meets an array of fantastic characters who help and hinder his efforts, and these people appear as archetypes, both familiar and outrageous. I found this book by accident and have to say that it changed the way I look at fiction, non-fiction, and the blending of the two. Murakami, whose work I have thoroughly delved into after reading "Wind-up Bird," won the Yoimuri Literary Award for this 600+ page work, receiving it from the Japanese literary giant Kenzaburo Oe. The novel deals extensively with the realm of dream and its relation to everyday waking life, issues of sex and power, politics and the abuse of media, history, animism, childhood, and modern-day Japanese society. At times hysterically funny, terrifying, insightful, grotesque, and visionary, I consider one of the top ten books written in the last 20 years. A must read for all fiction lovers.
Down and Out in Paris and London,
by George Orwell
While this book is generally classified as a work of fiction, it strikes me more as a memoir or travel guide with a dash of fiction thrown in. In his '20's Orwell spent time in France, writing books and trying to get published. Shortly afterward, back in England, he spent time with "tramps" in order to witness how England treated it's less fortunate population. It's these experiences that mold Down and Out in Paris and London. In Paris, after extended spells of joblessness and poverty, he eventually finds work as a plongeur (a dishwasher and kitchen assistant) in a high-end hotel. Despite the insanely long hours (usually 15-17 hour workdays) and the hectic pace of the work he develops a respect and admiration for his co-workers. It was hard work but at least he wasn't idle. It is idleness he finds when he returns to England. While awaiting a new job to start, he's penniless and ends up filling in with a group of homeless men. What's striking is the complete lack of employment prospects available to these men. The absurdity of British law at the time, which didn't allow people to stay at the same "casual ward" (homeless shelter) for more than one night at a time, kept these men wandering the countryside in search of their next bed, did not allow them to follow though on any prospects or gain any sort of footing in the community. It was a dreadful existence which lacked the flair of Orwell's experiences in Paris. The details that Orwell puts forth about his Paris co-workers and his British cohorts; the humorous asides that he offers, are what makes this book so rewarding. Despite immersing himself in this morass, he manages to comment on it with wry detachment. This detachment may have something to do with the fact that, even though he was living and working among them, he was really not one of them. He had his education and talent to fall back upon when things got rough. But, despite that, Orwell never judges them. He merely observes, then reports back with great wit. He describes the fetid hotels and boardinghouses where he stays. The "bread and marg" diet that English tramps subsist upon. Orwell wrote with great economy and a lack of bombast. The natural way he could turn a phrase and his comfort with language is what makes him, for me, one my favorite writers.
by Alan Bennett
Reading and readers are dying; 70 years of tomes have been written about a familiar aging British monarch. Why does one want to read a novel about the late-life discovery of literature by Queen Elizabeth II? One does, as Her Majesty would say, if one loves to laugh. I read this book in a sitting--128 pages of completely satisfying wry British humor, passion and empathy. Bennett's descriptions of palace, protocol and duty, are perfect. The Queen journeys from absorption in her Corgis, perfect attire, and banal, scripted small talk to mechanical stick throwing, repeating an outfit two days in a row, and questioning her subjects and visiting dignitaries about their reading habits (her gifts of favorite books are promptly sold on Ebay by the recipients). She becomes so absorbed in a book in her lap, that we see her waving mechanically from her limo. The Queen rationalizes her delightful and voracious habit as duty and most folks probably think librarians can do the same. If only.......
by Grace Metalious
Fifty two years after it's initial publication, Peyton Place still rocks the world with it's alternatively adult and near-sordid depiction of the dark secrets underneath a fictional New England town in the 1930s, as seen through the eyes of the book's central character Allison MacKenzie. There's alcoholism, incest, murder, teen age sex, abortion, illegitimate births, rape and so much more going on that it's easy to forget Metalious has managed to put together a riveting narrative that holds the audience's attention, even when shifting from one group of characters (there's quite a large cast) and situations to another. Metalious' then groundbreaking frank description of adult situations caused a lot of outrage in it's day (critics especially hated it), yet today college English Lit professors assign the book to their students with no angry outcries resulting. And it's a fun read to boot!
Last Night at the Lobster,
by Stewart O'Nan
Connecticut resident Stewart O'Nan has been called "the bard of the working class" and his latest book, "Last Night at the Lobster" gives a detailed insight into the workings of a Red Lobster franchise and its beleaguered workers. Manny DeLeon is the manager of the Red Lobster in a New Britain shopping mall slated to be closed for less than stellar sales. Manny is attempting to serve one last dinner with a skeleton crew and an impending snow storm brewing outside. He is still conflicted about his pregnant girlfriend at home and the waitress at work with who he is in love. Manny is moving to an Olive Garden restaurant and taking a few workers with him, but this last night with the faithful dinner regulars and the stranded shoppers takes on an added poignancy. An uncertain future awaits Manny, but tonight his life is one final last hectic night at "the Lobster."
If Only It Were True,
by Marc Levy
Sometimes getting to a book is the reward at the end of a journey. Somehow, I went from the film The Nanny Diaries to Marc Levy's first novel by way of the film You Can Count On Me which led me to the film, Just Like Heaven, based on his best selling novel in France translated into English and set in San Francisco. It is intriguing to compare the novel with the screen play. While the tone and comic pacing is nearly identical, the details of the narrative are changed to satisfy the dictates of a visual story rather than a literary one. However, the characters are charming and lovable and make the spirit world seem positively plausible both on screen and in print. If I had a choice, I might start with the book.
by Jack Kerouac
Published shortly after the success of the author's groundbreaking classic On the Road, but written years earlier in Mexico (when Kerouac hung out -and got high- with William S. Burroughs), Doctor Sax is a touching account of one young boy's flight into fantasy and his subsequent path to adulthood. Young Jacky Duluoz (Kerouac's literary alter ego), a French Canadian boy growing up in Lowell, Massachusetts in the early 1930s, escapes from the pressures of family and school into a world where vampires, werewolves and other creatures of the night converge and only the mysterious "Doctor Sax", a combination of the Shadow and the Wizard of Oz, can stop them. But the boy's growing perception of his actual surroundings may be young Jacky's real solution. Written in an even more audacious style than his other books (one section is detailed as stage directions for a play), Kerouac uses a variety of influences from his childhood (Walter B. Gibson's aforementioned pulp magazine character, "The Shadow"; L. Frank Baum's "Oz" books, the short stories of H.P. Lovecraft; radio thrillers and others) to craft a touching tale of a boy's leaving behind the things in his past to embrace approaching adulthood and maturity.
20th Century Ghosts,
by Joe Hill
I stumbled upon this book a few months back as I browsed new fiction-- I admit I was intrigued by its cover. This is a collection of outstanding short stories that range from fantasy- to moderately scary-to completely horrifying. I was compelled to read story after story and to find out more about the author. Very quickly I learned that Joe Hill won awards for "Heart Shaped Box" and that he is the son of Stephen King. "20th Century Ghosts" received the Bram Stoker Award, the British Fantasy Award, and the International Horror Guild Award for best collection, and the story that closes the book, "Voluntary Committal," won the 2006 World Fantasy Award for Best Novella. Some of my favorites: "20th Century Ghosts" and its twilight zone feel set in an old movie theater; rooting for the kidnapped boy in "The Black Phone", the inevitable ending that you know will come "In the Rundown" and the standout "Better Than Home". Not a bad pick for judging a book by its cover.
In the Company of the Courtesan,
As Dunant states in her Author's Note, "the Venice of this novel is deeply rooted in research". She has done a masterful job of recreating 16th Century Venice and has given the reader a terrifically interesting and enjoyable reading experience. At the center of the story are two great characters, Fiammetta Bianchini and her dwarf companion Bucino. After Germanic tribes invade Rome, they flee that city for Venice, determined to set up a thriving business similar to the one the had built in Rome based on Fiammetta's skills as a much-sought-after Roman courtesan. As their adventure in Venice unfolds, so many interesting characters become a part of the story. Dunant features some based on real people, such as the painter Titian. Her writing of the Venetian setting is terrific, especially the vivid descriptions of the canals, churches, and other buildings. Venice becomes as much a part of the story as her characters and the reader can be richly rewarded by reading this terrific book.
A Thousand Splendid Suns,
Hosseini won world-wide fame and readership with his first, highly-praised and wonderfully-received book The Kite Runner. In his second book, A Thousand Splendid Suns, set in Afghanistan like his previous book, he again succeeds admirably by creating a beautifully-written book with terrifically-drawn characters. While The Kite Runner's main characters were male, A Thousand Splendid Suns centers on two women. Mariam, born out-of-wedlock to a wealthy father and poor mother, struggles growing up and is married at 15 to Rasheed, an older, malicious husband. Enduring an emotionally brutal life with him, Mariam eventually is relegated to the "first wife" role after Rasheed marries Laila. Initially at odds with each other, Mariam and Laila become strangely connected as they grow dependent on each other for their survival. Hosseini's story covers the years of upheaval in Afghanistan - from its civil war through the Taliban and into current times. While sad in its depiction of the lives which Afghani women experience, A Thousand Splendid Suns is so well written that it becomes a terrifically moving and memorable book.
Crooked Little Vein,
Fans of Transmetropolitan will already be quite familiar with Warren Ellis's wild imagination and twisted sense of humor, and any true aficionado of comic books and graphic novels knows this prolific author's immense talent for story-telling. Crooked Little Vein is Ellis's debut foray into prose fiction, and, happily, it does not disappoint on any level--this is Ellis in full form. So, as is becoming typical of my reviews, be warned; this book is not for the squeamish.
The story begins with down-and-almost-out private detective Mike McGill being hired by the President's needle-popping Chief of Staff to track down a second, but lost, secret version of the Constitution bequeathed to future Presidents by the Founding Fathers. This is, however, a plot device, a MacGuffin to give the author an excuse to drop his characters into some truly bizarre situations.
Accompanying Mike on his surreal journey through the filthier back alleys of contemporary American culture is Trix, his new polyamorous assistant who serves mainly as a foil of open-mindedness for Mike's knee-jerk intolerance of the various deviant behaviours the duo encounter along the way. Think "Sam Spade" meets "The Jim Rose Circus" and you're half-way there.
Crooked Little Vein is a simultaneously disgusting and hilarious romp that will undoubtedly open your eyes to some of those dark little corners of contemporary sub-culture that you've only heard rumors of but never really quite felt up to investigating yourself. And that's okay--Mike and Trix do the legwork for you, and whether you find yourself flinching in revulsion or laughing out loud, Warren Ellis makes sure you've been thoroughly entertained.
Assuming you make it past the first sentence.
Special Topics in Calamity Physics,
by Marisha Pessl
After about 50 pages I wasn't sure I was going to make it through this; Pessl's writing seemed too clever by half. Many of her analogies and metaphors (and there are quite a bit of them) seemed showy and unnatural. Throughout the book she references imaginary reference books (with parentheses, publishers, dates and everything.) There were times I could almost picture her patting herself on the back. She wears her erudition on her sleeve. I stuck with it however and I am glad I did.
Over its course it's really two different books, the first being the story of Blue Van Meer, precocious daughter of Gavin Van Meer, a college professor who moves he and his daughter to a series of backwater universities (like the University of Arkansas, Wilsonville, etc.) Her mother was killed in an automobile crash and Blue is ferociously devoted to her father.
Upon her senior year in high school her dad decides to settle down in North Carolina and Blue attends St. Gallway school. There she is quickly befriended by a mysterious teacher named Hannah Schneider and also falls in with a clique of fellow students nicknamed The Bluebloods.
It is at this point the story turns from a faux memoir to something more menacing and chilling. Her relationship with Hannah and the others leads her to a dark secret. Pessl's writing becomes less precious and she gets down to business. What follows makes the reader's head spin; there is a foreboding undercurrent of mystery that forces the reader to carry on. No one seems innocent; everyone seems to have emotional baggage. Things are not as they seem... or are they? There are moments of devastation but Blue carries on. She is a hero but that heroism comes at a huge personal cost.
This is just the tip of the iceberg. There is so much information put forth in this novel that, at times, it makes the head spin. There are twists but not in hackneyed cliff-hanger style. This is richly rewarding and amazing stuff for a first novel.
by Bill Evans and Marianna Jameson
In Category 7 (2007), someone is controlling the weather. Strong storms are popping up and intensifying at an alarming rate. One is even threatening New York City with the potential to knock down buildings and flood low-lying areas of Manhattan. Can anyone stop these ferocious storms? To complicate matters, several people end up dead! This is the main plot in Category 7 by local resident and meteorologist Bill Evans with coauthor and novelist Marianna Jameson. It's an intriguing mix of mystery and science. Part of the action even takes place in Greenwich and Old Greenwich. It's well-written and easy to read. You won't want to put it down. Ideal for those interested in weather science and intrigue.
The Full Cupboard of Life,
by Alexander McCall Smith
The Full Cupboard of Life is the fifth in Smith's series featuring the adventures of Precious Ramotswe and her No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency in Botswana. Smith has written yet another charming, fun-to-read tale with his delightful cast of characters. This reviewer recommends, if possible, to read the series in order of publication as the stories are, at times, built on events and character development that occurred in previous books. Here, Mma Ramotswe is still engaged to Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, who operates his car repair business in the same building as her detective agency. Her client in this story hires Mma Ramotswe to get information about an individual for specific reasons. And, while she does succeed in so doing, Mma Ramotswe learns that not all clients are willing to accept the evidence she uncovers. Smith's love of the land and people of Botswana is very evident and adds greatly to the pleasures the reader finds in this book.
What Makes Sammy Run?,
by Budd Schulberg
Think Ari of HBO's Entourage is a new breed in Hollywood? Then meet Sammy Glick. Follow Sammy's rise to Hollywood success, living his version of the American Dream in the novel What Makes Sammy Run? Named National Critics Choice as Best First Novel of the Year in 1941, author Budd Schulberg introduces Sammy as a copy boy at a NY newspaper who never stops running, never stops looking for an angle, or a leg up...no matter who he steps on to get there. When published, the best seller was praised by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Dorothy Parker and others, even while causing a maelstrom in Hollywood, with critics and gossips trying to identify who were the real people behind Schulberg's tinsel town characters. Among his work, Budd Schulberg wrote the screenplays for On the Waterfront and A Face in the Crowd.
by Stephen King (writing as Richard Bachman)
The literary world abounds with stories of those who are born into a life of desperate misfortune but manage to overcome horrible odds with a little luck, a little help from their friends, and perhaps even the sensibility of some long-wobbling cosmic karmic wheel finally straightening itself out and doing right by our beleaguered hero.
This isn't one of those stories.
Blaze is the story of a man who falls through the cracks; his family fails him, the "system" fails him, and any connections he makes in life to anyone who might have any kind of positive influence on the course of his tragic existence are severed, repeatedly, by cruel twists of fate. What makes the story most tragic is that, at heart, slow-witted giant Clayton "Blaze" Blaisdell, Jr. is a decent person--even admirable in some ways--who could have led a much different life if lady luck hadn't been quite such a witch. But when Blaze is befriended by George Rackley, a small-time con-man with a dangerously large ambition who eventually ends up dying in Blaze's arms, Blaze's fate is all but decided. Even so, maybe things could have turned out differently if George had simply stayed dead...
Blaze is the last novel attributed to Stephen King's alter-ego, Richard Bachman, and in its sensitivity and genuine portrayal of the human condition, easily stands alongside the best of the author's works.
The Boleyn Inheritance,
by Philippa Gregory
Philippa Gregory has created yet another vivid and very readable portrait of Henry VIII's court and times with The Boleyn Inheritance. Gregory has told this story from the perspective of three women who were there - Henry's fourth wife, Bavarian-born Anne of Cleeves, his fifth wife Katherine Howard and Jane Rochford, who was the sister-in-law of his second wife Anne Boleyn. As with her other books about Henry and his family, The Constant Princess, The Other Boleyn Girl, The Queen's Fool and Virgin Lover, Gregory obviously has researched her subject matter so well and written yet another terrifically interesting and compelling story of the court drama and intrigue during Henry VIII's reign. In particular, these three women come alive with Gregory masterful skill and the reader gets yet another "inside look" at Henry VIII's court. This book is highly recommended, especially for those who have enjoyed Gregory's other books.
by Richard Russo
Put any of the novels that you might have missed by the irrepressible Richard Russo on your summer reading list. Straight Man is a complete hoot.
It's a savvy, sweet satire. Russo sends up small college town life, particularly the bureaucracy of academe. Somewhere in west central Pennsylvania a not top-notch institution of higher education is struggling with its budget for the year to come. Fifty-something-year-old Hank is the reluctant English Department Head pro tem.
Hank's had a one hit wonder literary career that peaked decades ago. Not ambitious, he's riding just a bit on his father's relative literary fame.
As the inevitable year-end job slashing rumors rise, his department of quarrelsome increasingly hysterical egotistical professors plot mutiny against him and the administration bean counters. Academic love-hate relations abound. Hank is finally driven to instigate a bizarre media campaign. He's going to kill a duck a day at the campus pond for tv news until fiscal sanity (as defined by the English profs) is restored. Enjoy the romp.
by Cormac McCarthy
I had never really bought in to that adage about how great literature can transform lives...until I read The Road. I mean, many re-readings of Martin Amis's novels have served to reinforce my cynical worldview but, that's different. "The Road", in its quiet beauty has changed the way I look at (and live in) the world. Maybe it is only temporary but no other book has quite had the impact on me that this one has. A man and his son make their way through a post-apocalyptic United States. They are hungry, scared and tired but also very determined to survive. There are not many folks left and the ones who are will kill you for your shoes. McCarthy is sketchy with the details on what has exactly transpired but, it's not really important. What's important is the man's love for his son and what he will do in order to protect him and keep him safe. In lesser hands a story like this would be nothing more than a corny Mad Max-ish adventure story but, McCarthy suffuses the story with so much underlying humanity and love that it is nearly impossible to stop reading. Believe me, there were times when I could barely get myself to pick this book back up, there are some very difficult moments, The hardship these two endure are almost too much to take. But...I always went back and, I couldn't stop reading once I came upon the final 50 pages. What happens in the end is both too sad and too happy for my words to do justice. Mr. McCarthy has written his masterpiece.
The Possibility of an Island,
by Michel Houellebecq
The Possibility of an Island, by enfant terrible of contemporary French literature, Michel Houellebecq, revisits themes of religious cults, love, lust and genetic engineering with the same challenging insights as his previous books. Set in both the present and future, the narrative is a recounting of present and subsequent lives of Daniels. The original Daniel, a comedian who achieves fame and fortune through his misanthropic exploitation of social ills, falls in with a cult that promises immortality through cloning. Human suffering is eventually eradicated resulting in an angst free existence not worth living and nostalgia for the heartache experienced by Daniel 1.
by Joe Hill
Another star has joined the horror genre. He walked into the arena under his own writing power, but he is the son of Stephen King. "Heart-Shaped Box" by Joe Hill is vaguely reminiscent of early Stephen King novels and it is very good. Over the hill rock star Judas Coyne has a fascination with macabre collectibles and he decides to buy a ghost on an internet auction site. The ghost arrives attached to a vintage suit wrapped in a black heart-shaped box. Judas thinks the acquisition is enough but finds the suit belonged to Craddock McDermott, the step-father of one of his former groupies who committed suicide after Judas dismissed her from his life. Judas and his current girlfriend Georgia come face to face with the ghost as well as their own dark and troubled pasts. Warner Brothers has already bought the film rights, so read the book first.
by Thomas Harris
Hannibal Lecter. Hannibal "The Cannibal". One of the most memorable characters of modern fiction, and perhaps one of the most disturbing, he is also one of the most intriguing. What kind of a man can go from pouring tea and reciting classic Japanese poetry one moment to committing gruesome murder the next, all without his heart rate rising above eighty-five beats per minute? Thomas Harris's new novel, Hannibal Rising, delves into his character's past and how it influenced the creation of a psyche both beautiful and dark. We get to learn of Hannibal's lineage and his life as a relatively normal if somewhat exceptional boy in Lithuania until his world is suddenly immersed in the worst kind of horror from which he emerges as a sole survivor, irrevocably changed. Hannibal is adopted by a kindly uncle and his beautiful wife and taken to France, there to continue his education and hopefully heal his damaged mind. But tragedy strikes again, and Hannibal embarks upon a bloody course of revenge most befitting to those on the receiving end.
With an average of about six years between each of his novels, one would expect Harris to deliver us a story that is honed and polished, and as usual he does not disappoint. His prose is clear and as gripping as ever, though any fan of the character may find themselves wishing for more; this novel is really a "prequel" to the series featuring Harris's infamous character, and one can only speculate with great relish (ha ha--cannibalism pun) where a true sequel to 1999's Hannibal might take us. In the meantime, Hannibal Rising is a worthy (and arguably, necessary) addition to the Hannibal Lecter mythos.
by Nelson DeMille
Nelson DeMille's latest thriller is the fourth book featuring John Corey, an ex-NYPD detective and his FBI agent wife, Kate Mayfield. If you are familiar with DeMille's books you know that the dialogue will be witty and the plot thrilling and nerve-wracking. The book takes place in 2002, during the tense days following 9/11 and presents a what-if scenario that is uncomfortably believable. Harry Muller, an anti-terrorist agent, has disappeared in the woods of upstate New York during a routine surveillance of an exclusive hunting enclave, the Custer Hill Club whose members include government and political leaders. Corey and Kate follow their instincts about the disappearance and visit the Club to find what happened to their friend. What they uncover is a diabolical plan called "Wild Fire" that will insure a nuclear response and are engaging to level the Middle East if a nuclear device is detonated in any U.S. city. This is a great book for a long winter's night.
by Gerard Donovan
A deeply unsettling novel about a man who lives alone in the deep woods of Maine. A series of personal losses as well as his dreadful loneliness slowly lead to his psychological demise.Grim stuff but written with great beauty by Mr. Donovan. He also approaches his subject with care and subtlety. Instead of a raging monster, Julius is an avid reader, (in his cabin is a very large collection of first edition books, left to him by his father), a gardener and, one senses, a man who just needs a little company to pull himself out of his deep and dangerous funk.
Donovan's command of language is astonishingly precise, eerily reflecting Julius's disarmingly mild-mannered pathology as it ascribes no more importance to the cold-blooded shooting of a hunter than to going into town for groceries. This is a haunting book that stays with the reader long after the last tragic word is read.
by Nadine Gordimer
July's People by Nadine Gordimer (Nobel Prize winner), written in 1981, is a powerful commentary on the evils of apartheid in South Africa. July is a manservant in the service of an enlightened white family, who consider themselves socially responsible people. Because of an impending revolution, the family flees from their home under the care of July who takes them to his village. The conflicts that arise are subtle and provocative. Gordimer's writing combines "skill with social conscience". The result is an extraordinary piece of literature.
by Michael Crichton
What might happen if universities, bio-tech companies, and other shadowy 3rd parties could legally "own" the very building blocks of our genetic make-up? This question, as absurd as it may sound, is in fact our current reality, and Michael Crichton explores this highly controversial issue to its logical--and bizarre--extremes in his new novel, Next. Crichton tells us up front that "This is a work of fiction, except for the parts that aren't", which at first seems so obvious a point that one wonders why he felt the need to even state it in a book full of talking orangutans and glowing rabbits, but as his story unfolds, some extremely strange and far-fetched situations and creations are revealed, many of which, as it turns out, Crichton cribbed from actual events.
The tale itself is a fast-paced and intriguing romp through some of the legal and scientific quandaries being faced today, and those that are appearing on the horizon as the race for dominance in the genetic marketplace surges onward. Crichton's characters are interesting enough, even as some only blatantly serve their purposes to the narrative, but for some reason, this reader found "Dave" the transgenic ape to be among the most "human" and sympathetic of the cast; kudos to Crichton for expressing viewpoints from both sides of the great genetic divide. One hopes that society will take heed of the author's cautionary message and reconsider the restrictions and laws of genetic research and patent ownership before things really spiral out of control. This book is a must-read for everyone who doesn't want their genome owned and controlled by someone else.
Balzac and the Little
by Dai Sijie
Delightful and moving story of two young men sent to a remote village for "re-education" during the Cultural Revolution. Their re-education means carrying buckets of excrement up the mountain as well as mining coal. Life improves a bit after the head man discovers their talents for storytelling and sends them each month to town to watch the current movie, then re-create it in telling it to the villagers. In town they meet the little seamstress and start to re-educate her by reading to her Balzac and other forbidden western literature that they manage to obtain. A freeing of the spirit occurs for the boys, and an unexpected result for the little seamstress.
The Lambs of London,
by Peter Ackroyd
The Lambs of London is a little gem of an historical novel by Peter Ackroyd. In it Charles and Mary Lamb are the central characters in this fictional novel about a "lost" Shakespearean play. Fans of the regency period frequently meet the Lambs, either as tragic figures or literary lights. Here, in Ackroyd's magnificent prose, they come to life as eccentric but endearing characters in a story told with humor and sensitivity.
The Prisoner of Guantanamo,
by Dan Fesperman
A political thriller ripped from current headlines, The Prisoner of Guantanamo gives the reader a great inside view of the American base of Guantanamo and its much-debated prison system. Fesperman is a reporter for the Baltimore Sun and has both a keen reporters eye and an obviously well-polished writing style. Perhaps the plot wears thin towards the end of the book, but the reader gets a wonderful "insider's" view of Guantanamo prisons. All aspects of prisoner treatment is covered. The main character, Revere Falk, a FBI veteran and Arabic speaker, is an interrogator of suspected terrorists. His main charge is a Yemeni man, who is an al-Qaeda suspect. After an American soldier is found on a Cuban beach, adjacent to Guantanamo, the story takes off with many representatives of the American intelligence community becoming involved in this death. The highlights of the book are the physical descriptions of the Guantanamo base and the conditions in which the prisoners are kept. By the way, Fesperman has written several other books with political themes - two being The Small Boat of Great Sorrows and Lie in the Dark. Both take place in Sarajevo and are also recommended along with this book.
by Ian Fleming
The very first James Bond 007 novel ever written by Ian Fleming, 1953's Casino Royale was recently remade, with Daniel Craig as Bond, as a reasonably faithful, updated, action-packed AND emotionally powerful motion picture. (Two previous versions, both available together on DVD from the library, were a live black & white television broadcast and a 1967 overstuffed comedy spoof in color, boasting an all-star cast, five directors and twice as many screenwriters. The newest version knocks these two straight out of the ball park.) Going back to the book, however, you can't help but note how innovative Fleming's original plot, which wasn't supposed to lead to an ongoing series and its various media spin offs, had been. As writer Kim Newman & others have noted, Fleming's "Casino Royale" seems to repudiate the classic British thrillers of such writers as John Buchan, Sapper and Leslie Charteris: Bond gets caught by one enemy and is rescued by another, who then escapes after vowing to kill him, is brutally tortured with a carpet beater and discovers, too late, something unsavory about the heroine. He's never on top of the situation and seems to be at everybody else's mercy, unlike his literary forebears Richard Hannay, Bulldog Drummond and Simon Templar (AKA "The Saint"). Bond is more a reactor than an actor in this story, never in control and always propelled along, like the readers, from one situation to another. That situation would change in subsequent books and the resultant films. A relentlessly downbeat tone overshadows the book, in spite of some genuinely tense & exciting moments (the cane gun; the aforementioned torture scene; a wild car chase). New readers shouldn't be put off by the book's then-recent topical Cold War references (villain Le Chiffe works for the Russians in this one) to enjoy this first-rate thriller.
by Gary Jennings, Robert Gleason and Junius Podrug
Aztec Rage is the story of Don Juan de Zavala, one macho hombre of a young caballero living in early 19th century New Spain who learns the hard way that his "pure" Spanish blood may not be as pure as he was raised to believe. This deathbed revelation uttered by a corrupt uncle sets off a chain of events that leads Don Juan on a wild journey over the breadth of the land the Aztecs once ruled, across the Atlantic to the Napoleonic wars of Europe, and back again, as he struggles to outmaneuver those who would see him hang for the crime of being born someone else. All through his travels and travails and Lady Luck's fickle mood swings, Juan comes to grips with who he was, is, and wants to be, and regardless of whose blood runs in his veins or who stands in his way, Juan is determined to win his freedom--even if it means waging a Revolution that will shake the very foundations of New Spain! This story was realized from the notes of the late, great author of historical fiction, Gary Jennings, by Robert Gleason and Junius Podrug, who do a fine job of imbuing their work with all the action and period authenticity that Jennings was known for while maintaining a voice that is compelling without parroting Jennings' own. If you're looking for a story filled with adventure, romance, compassion and humor set within a historical context, this is a book you won't want to set down.
by Monica Ali
Monica Ali's Brick Lane is her first novel and has already generated quite a bit of hype. It is the story of Nazneen, a Bengali woman who is not much educated and who arrives in London, in an arranged marriage, as a bride to Chanu, 20 years her senior. In this new environment, Nazneen is eager to grow up and therefore reacts to the people and the events that she encounters. The plot tracks the process by which Nazneen moves from accepting fate to bending it to her will, from shame to tentative self possession, from a silence both voluntary and culturally conditioned to a yell of liberation. This is a magnificent study of a repressed woman realizing the power of her own identity.
The secondary characters are also richly crafted; they could each be the main character in a novel. The story moves from simple to complex, blending the personal and domestic with the politics of our times which gives it a more vivid and believable picture.
You cannot help but get involved in the detailed journey of all the characters. Truly interesting and engaging! Give it a shot.
On Agate Hill,
by Lee Smith
The story of Molly Petree is given to the reader through many "artifacts" and "documents" found recently in a box on an old plantation. I liked the format, and felt as if I were doing genealogical research, piecing together Molly's life after the Civil War in North Carolina. We are introduced to 13 year-old Molly through her own diary entries and correspondence to her friend Mary White, and understand that she is an orphan on a broken plantation, surrounded by the "ghosts" of those lost in the war. She is a wild youth but aims to rise above the poverty and life she has; she struggles for education, a life of her own, and family. The "documentation" gives a great depiction of life in the south after the Civil War. There are reports during her school years at Gatewood Academy, recipes, prayers, songs and even court documents from a trial where she is accused of murdering her husband at the turn of the century. As when doing research, there are little gaps that one fills in to tie the story together, but On Agate Hill provides great "documentation" for a complete story Molly Petree and her life of hardship, survival, murder and love.
Rise and Shine,
by Anna Quindlen
Anna Quindlen's fifth novel, Rise and Shine, is her best book to date. Using her wry social commentaries which make her magazine and newspaper columns so wonderful, she weaves a story of family and the fleeting nature of fame. Bridget Fitzmaurice is the narrator of the story. She is a social worker in the Bronx and the sister of the most famous woman in America," Megan Fitzmaurice, the host of the preeminent morning show, Rise and Shine. Bridget is the practical, grounded sister who is a second mother to Meghan's son, Leo. Meghan is the media darling who falls from grace after uttering an expletive during the conclusion of an interview when she thought her microphone was off. Bridget is the tether who keeps Meghan grounded while she tries to redeem her image and find out who she has been all her life. The sisters were orphaned at a young age and raised by a loving aunt who taught them to rely on themselves and each other. In dealing with the family and personal complications, both Meghan and Bridget find their way back to each other and to the family they have created. If you've been disappointed in some of Anna Quindlen's previous novels, give this one a try, you won't be disappointed.
The Whistling Season,
by Ivan Doig
"Can't Cook But Doesn't Bite" was the headline on an ad in the local Montana paper. A widower with two sons answers in the hope that, after all, she really can cook, at least better than they can. This brings not only Rose whose talents are exactly as the ad described, but also her brother Morris who is a walking encyclopedia. Rose does major clean-up jobs in the house and Morris takes over when the school teacher runs away with an itinerant preacher. Reminiscences about the events of that momentous year constitute the story told by the older son who is now superintendent of schools for the state and is visiting his old one-room schoolhouse prior to a decision on closing them all and thus ending the way of life they represent.
Fun Home: a family tragicomic,
by Alison Bechdel
It's hard to decide what's the best part of this book, the funny and heartbreaking story that that the author shares or the hundreds of fantastic drawings that accompany that story.
Bechdel shares her story of growing up in a small town funeral home, which is the subject of the book's title. What the reader eventually discovers is a story of family dysfunction of enormous proportions. After her father is killed, run over by a truck, to be exact, Bechdel begins to look back on the man's life. What she discovers is that he led a double life. He was a father and a husband but gay as well. This book is a love letter to this horrifically flawed man.
The thoughtful and insightful way Bechdel shares this with the reader is truly something special. Fun Home is a beautiful, assured piece of work.
The Mercy Room,
by Gilles Rozie
If I had believed the churlish review in Publisher's Weekly, I would have missed this mercifully short but compelling novel. This simple book of survival in occupied France seduces you with the beautiful translation by Anthea Bell of Asterix fame. The story has the attention to detail and the spareness of a screen play but the raw sex and unrelenting dread would be impossible to sit through. A film has to have some underlying thread of hope to succeed. I couldn't have watched the movie, but I couldn't stop reading the book.
The Dharma Bums,
by Jack Kerouac
The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac is a terrific follow-up to the author's classic On The Road. This time the pace is less frantic and more contemplative with Kerouac's stand-in, 'Ray Smith' finding a sense of self-reliance and inner peace as he and friend/muse 'Japhy Ryder' (Zen/Beat poet Gary Snyder in disguise) go mountain climbing. Very much in the spirit of Whitman and Thoreau in its tone and just as reflective. (For a good introduction to Gary Snyder's poems & prose, check out The Gary Snyder Reader.)
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince,
by J. K. Rowling
The sixth installment of the phenomenally successful Harry Potter series continues to delight and enthrall readers with the further adventures and travails of Harry, his Hogwarts cronies, and the developing showdown with the evil Voldemort. This reviewer found that Rowling has crafted not only another complex and intriguing plot, but also has continued to develop the main characters skillfully. For much of the story, Harry is learning about the early life of Voldemort and why he has become such a dark menace to society. Much has been written about the "darkness" of this story. This reviewer found that it is indeed deeper and far more "adult" than the others, but not in a detracting way. Balancing this aspect, this book shows Rowling adding more fun and entertaining layers to her descriptions of the wizard world and makes its special inhabitants come alive so vibrantly. This reviewer has read the series in order of publication, the recommended way, and looks forward to the seventh and last volume of this brilliantly-written series.
English August: an Indian story,
by Upamanyu Chatterjee
This was originally published to much acclaim in India in 1988, and recently made available on these shores by the fine folks at the New York Review of Books. Despite its somewhat stuffy title, this is the ultimate slacker novel.
Agastya (August) Sen, the novel's hero (?) is a product of urban, westernized India. Delhi, to be exact. He is aimless, cynical and comes from a privileged family and is not in the least inclined to count his blessings. He has more than a little in common with the hero of John Kennedy Toole's ''A Confederacy of Dunces," in his egotistical alienation. After searching for a meaningful career he decides to enlist in the Indian Administrative Service (the IAS) and is sent to a small town called Madna. What follows is culture shock as August tries to come to terms with the tedium of small town life and the ridiculousness of Civil Service protocol. Not the least of these challenges is coming to terms with his own lack of ambition. Chronic marijuana use, masturbation and insane bouts of exercise help...for awhile.
The novel is rich in details of Indian life and culture; the oppressive heat in Madna, the mosquitoes, the dubious quality of the water. My guess is that the India of today is a bit different than 20 years ago (when this novel takes place) but, this novel has aged gracefully.
The Second Wives Club,
by Jane Moore
Oh, for the irony of the English! After reading this, I had to read all of Jane Moore's dishy novels. You will feel for these women and root for them in all their absurdity. Alas, it isn't an audio book, but if it were I might find myself laughing too hard to drive.
by Scott Smith
I was a big fan of Scott Smith's first book, A Simple Plan, and was eager to read his second book which came out this summer, The Ruins. As Stephen King said, "The Ruins did for Mexican vacations what Jaws did for beach weekends in Long Island." The Ruins is more of a horror thriller and it maintains its intense and unrelenting suspense through every paragraph. Four young tourists from the United States are vacationing in Cancun before beginning jobs and graduate school. They befriend a German tourist whose brother is working on an archaeological dig and they all decide to go visit the archeologist and the ruins where they are working. The events which unfold are unimaginable but you are unable to leave the characters until the last page. Reportedly Ben Stiller's production company has bought the rights to the movie, but as with any good book, the movie won't be able to capture the terror and suspense of this book.
by Katherine Weber
At 16, Esther Gottesfeld becomes one of the few survivors of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. She tells and retells her story in testimonies, interviews and in her own mind until her death just days before 9/11. Feminist researcher Ruth Zion hounds Gottesfeld's granddaughter Rebecca for mementos and truth behind what she sees as discrepancies and cover-ups in Gottesfeld's story. Rebecca and boyfriend George Botkin lovingly examine Esther's belongings to see if Zion's claims have any legitimacy.
by Claire Kilroy
Claire Kilroy's Tenderwire is the Irish author's debut in America. Violinist Eva Tynes (also Irish born) is living in New York and performing in a chamber orchestra when she collapses. Immediately after her hospitalization, she seems to be inwardly drifting in a fog. A visit to a local bar leads to hooking up with investment banker Daniel and breaking up with her long term boyfriend. She continues risk taking behaviors, buying a black market violin from a Russian who claims it is a Stradivarius. After acquiring the instrument her professional and personal life spiral into mystery and suspense surrounding the violin.
by John Updike
If you want a thorough review of John Updike's new novel, Terrorist, read the review in the June 18 New York Times Book Review. This book has generated a lot of interest and commentary - pro and con. Not surprisingly, as Updike is one of our premier novelists of the last three decades and I admire him for taking on such a volatile subject. I recommend the book - it is timely, to say the least, and the storyline is believable . It might even be a portend of events to come. A devout, impressionable young Muslim (half Egyptian, half Irish) falls under the influence of a radical imam, and his devotion increases to extreme proportions. The teen-aged protagonist never comes alive for me, but the surrounding characters are more believable and, as always, Updike excels in writing descriptive passages that set the scenes and draw the reader into the story. The ending is painfully suspenseful - shadows of 9/11.
by Sherri Tepper
Science fiction readers will love this work by Tepper, a writer who specializes in depicting other cultures and worlds. The story seems to start with a foxhunting scene, but the reader slowly realizes that something is wrong. In fact, the mounts are not horses, the "hounds" are not dogs, and the humans seem both terrified and powerless. Something is very wrong on the planet Grass, and the ambassador Marjorie Westriding sets out to discover the truth. Tepper always creates three-dimensional characters who engage our sympathy and interest, and this book can be read for human interest and tone, not just as an idea puzzle to be solved.
The Templar Legacy,
by Steve Berry
Yet another entry into the "what-if-this-had-happened-in-the-history-of-Christianity", Berry appears to like this genre as his last book, The Third Secret, fell into this as well. This book deals with the order of the Templars that was founded in the 12th century and lived according to the Rule, a strict, monastic-style code of life. In the 14th Century, the Templars were persecuted and largely eliminated by Philip IV, King of France with their substantial treasury taken by him.Or, was there another side to the story? Enter Steve Berry and his book.......Written in the present day setting, Cotton Mallon is the main character who becomes involved in a resurgence of the Templars and their search for their treasures that supposedly disappeared years ago.With this involvement, he learns a lot about the Templars and their history as he becomes embroiled in a grand adventure. While this might be a pure flight of fancy for some, it does prove to be a quick, enjoyable read for those who like this type of writing.
by Robert Alexander
Most people who know me know that I am utterly obsessed with all things Russian. So, it should come as no surprise that I would recommend this book. This is not just a lame novel that poorly incorporates the Russian Revolution into some hackneyed story. This is a fictionalized account of Rasputin's last months from the point of view of his oldest daughter, Varvara. Mr. Alexander has done his research well and incorporates parts of Varvara's biography of her father, as well as her autobiography (Yes, she was a real person!) If you liked Mr. Alexander's previous work, The Kitchen Boy, about the execution of the Romanovs and a fictional escape by the Tsarevich Alexei, you will love this one. My one gripe - that the picture on the cover is of Grand Duchess Tatiana - but that's pretty minor.
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan,
by Lisa See
A novel depicting 19th century China and the lives of Lily and Snow Flower--two young girls selected to be lao tangs (old sames), a contracted lifetime friendship. The novel reminded me of The Red Tent in the sense that you are invited into a faraway time and place to experience the culture of women in a man's world.In Snow Flower, the "tent" is the upstairs women's chamber where foot binding, embroidery, secret writing, arranged marriages and historical customs of the time bring the women together and provide the historical backdrop for the powerful stories of mothers and daughters, family and women friendships.
The Last Kingdom,
by Bernard Cornwell
The much-admired historical novelist Bernard Cornwell's saga The Last Kingdom goes back in time and place to Anglo Saxon Britain. As a page turner it's just right. The year is A.D. 866 Northumbria. Uhtred, just a boy, is captured by Danish chieftain Earl Ragnar, who raises him as his own. Viking life agrees with Uhtred. As he grows into manhood he struggles with divided loyalties-the warrior mentor he loves like a father, and the pious and learned Alfred, King of Wessex. Alfred is struggling to reclaim the kingdoms of Northumbria, Mercia and East Anglia, all held by the Danes, and reunite them with the lands under his control in the south. In the end of course, we don't call Alfred "great" for nothing. He charged back from the last outpost of Anglo-Saxon culture to best the ferocious Vikings -- both in battle and with keen diplomacy. He accomplishes all this with Uhtred, returned to the fold, by his side. The Last Kingdom is steeped in drama, gory battles, and historical consequence and is a great visit to ninth century Brittain.
Eat The Document,
by Dana Spiotta
In the book, Eat The Document, Dana Spiotta has written a compelling tale about living with the consequences of past decisions, and the inexorable path of growing up and living with your mistakes. Bobby DeSoto and Mary Whittaker participate in a radical protest in 1970 which goes terribly wrong. They must disappear, never seeing each other and assume new identities. Fast forward to Seattle in the 1990's where the yuppie culture is abounding, and Mary, now known as Caroline, is raising her 15 year old son who has an uncanny obsession with the music and culture of the 1970's. Bobby runs a left-wing bookstore and is struggling with relationships and turning 50. Spiotta weaves the culture of the two decades together and makes one believe that things don't really change, they just change names.
The Camel Club,
by David Baldacci
David Baldacci is the master of the political thriller with such books as Absolute Power and Hour Game. This is a book that Oliver Stone could have written and ironically the main character's name is "Oliver Stone" although obviously a pen name, and here's a hint: he is other than he appears to be. He is one of a group of marginalized vagrants, called "The Camel Club", who live around and near the White House and either protest or promote various causes while discussing conspiracy theories. When some of them witness a murder they are unsure what to do with this information until a sympathetic Secret Service agent wins their trust and joins them in this nerve racking suspenseful adventure through Washington, D.C.
The Last Templar,
by Raymond Khoury
Raymond Khoury's The Last Templar grabs your imagination from the first pages where four horsemen dressed in the medieval costume of the Knights Templar ride their horses up the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and ransack the "Treasures of the Vatican" exhibit. They steal many of the artifacts including a crude de-coding device and disappear into Central Park. Tess Chaykin is an archaeologist attending the event who witnesses up close one of the horsemen who utters a Latin phrase. She joins forces with FBI investigator Sean Reilly to follow the clues linking the reign of the Templars with the present day robbery. This is a very satisfying read employing history, theology, conspiracy theory and church politics with something for everyone and a great plot.
The Virgin's Lover,
by Philippa Gregory
The third in a trilogy about the Tudors (The Other Boleyn Girl and The Queen's Fool being the first two books), this book will delight and entertain as the others have. Set in the first part of Elizabeth I's reign, The Virgin's Lover concerns Elizabeth's moves to consolidate her power as Queen and head of the Church of England. Personally, she has embarked on an affair with Robet Dudley. This is a doomed relationship since Dudley is married and his wife Amy Robsart Dudley will not divorce her husband. As Amy wanders from being the guest as various homes in England, Robert carries out his affair with Elizabeth. The detail is wonderfully plentiful as the reader gets an intimate view of Elizabeth's court and its political and personal intrigues. Gregory is a fine writer and creates the Elizabethan Tudor world with vigor and a thoroughly enjoyable style. This is highly recommended with the added advice of reading this series in historical order - The Other Boleyn Girl and then The Queen's Fool before The Virgin's Lover
by Lisa Fugard
It is always a true pleasure for an avid reader to discover a first book that is terrifically written and thoroughly engrossing. Such is the case with Skinner's Drift by Lisa Fugard. It is the story of Eva van Rensberg's return to South Africa in 1997 after a ten year absence. With her mother deceased and an estrangement with her father, she must deal with reconciling herself to her dying father and her emotionally painful past growing up on a farm in northeastern South Africa. Fugard's writing creates the vividly interesting world of north-eastern South Africa by the Limpopo River filled with gorgeous landscapes, wild animals and exotic flora and fauna. Through her mother's diaries, Eva discovers much about her early years in South Africa and her family. Those years were also times of changing dynamics within South African society and the reader is given "an insider's" view of the last years of apartheid. This is a compelling family story with the bonus of learning a great deal about the land and society of South Africa in the last days of its divided society.
by Ha Jin
After reading War Trash, this reviewer wants to read more of this fascinating and articulate writer. War Trash, a novel based on historical fact, tells the intriguing tale of Yu Yuan, a 1949 graduate of a Chinese military academy after the Communists have seized control of China, who "volunteers" to aid the North Koreans during the Korean Conflict. The first part details his being sent to Korea and the harrowing time he and his comrades endure wandering around the Korean countryside and trying to survive as soldiers in a battle field. Yuan is captured by American forces and becomes a POW. Jin creates Yuan's life as a prisoner in gripping fashion as he suffers torture, brutality and hardship. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of his confinement is the intense pressure Chinese prisoners suffered by their fellow countrymen to pledge loyalty to either the Communists on the mainland or Taiwan. In all, this well-written novel sheds much light on the Korean Conflict from a different angle - that of a Chinese soldier. Very highly recommended.
by Jack Kerouac
Jack Kerouac (1922-1969) wrote The Subterraneans over three days & nights without sleep, and the novel's stylistic tone -run on sentences the length of a paragraph, wild & dizzy shifts in conversational prose, much like improvising in jazz music- does indicate the author's frame of mind at that time. However new readers shouldn't be intimidated by Kerouac's style, as the writing perfectly matches the protagonist's (Kerouac in disguise here as 'Leo Percepied') confusion, happiness, apprehension & finally heartbroken despair as he pursues a bittersweet, interracial love affair. Here is a true example of the "spontaneous prose" Kerouac often aimed for. You can almost hear jazz musicians play in the background while reading this. (Kerouac preferred Charlie 'Bird' Parker but you could play Miles Davis & John Coltrane in the background while reading this if you like.)
Prince of Fire,
by Daniel Silva
As a big fan of Silva's series with Gabriel Allon (the art restorer who "doubles" as a secret agent for the Israeli government), this reviewer welcomes the fifth book of the series with Allon. In brief, he is pressed into service after a terrorist attack in Rome and proceeds on a chase to capture a Palestian terrorist. This terrorist may or may not have been behind the vicious attack on his wife that was described in earlier books. As usual, the action is fast-paced, the characters well-developed and the story is very timely. In fact, the reader gets an insight into the Arab-Israeli conflict that is very well balanced and educational. Another bonus is the developments in Allon's personal life that make his character all the more real. This is very highly recommended!
by Margaret Atwood
Are you looking for a new twist on a very old tale? Margaret Atwood's The Penelopiad (The Myth of Penelope and Odysseus)is just the book! You needn't have read Homer's The Iliad & The Odyssey to enjoy the story as Helen introduces you to the characters, especially those devious gods and goddesses, who are constantly interfering in the lives of lesser beings. This very short but biting story has been updated. Poor Penelope is left alone in the palace (for 10 long years) with her 12 maids and a myriad of suitors eating her out of house and home. Meanwhile, her wondering husband, Odysseus, is out rescuing Helen of Troy and gets delayed on his way home. Sound familiar? Penelope explains her dilemma in terms that are not only innocent but quite laughable at times.
by E.L. Doctorow
E.L. Doctorow's new book, The March is an account of General William Tecumseh Sherman's march through Georgia and the Carolinas, leaving , as one writer describes "a 60-mile wide trail of death, destruction, looting, thievery, and chaos." Amidst the blood and gore goes a touching storyline, featuring a southern nurse, a dedicated doctor, a 15-year old mulatto girl , and two deserters from the Confederate troops, who insinuate themselves into General Sherman's Union army, with their own agenda for revenge. This personalized approach to a horrendous chapter in our country's history forces the reader to rethink the lessons learned in American History 101... For instance: slavery was abolished but what were the newly free workers expected to do with this new independence? No money, no skills, no education - not likely. The effects of this abandonment of government responsibility have reverberated through the years. There is a very touching thumbnail sketch of Abraham Lincoln as seen through the eyes of the Army doctor. (Just when you thought you had read all you needed to know about him). E L Doctorow readers be assured this book is up to his usual excellent standards. To his new readers -welcome to the fan club of said author. You won't be disappointed.
by Elizabeth Kostova
While this is a very long book, this reviewer found it a great, wonderful read. The story begins in 1972 as a young woman discovers cryptic letters of her father's that lead to a grand adventure across Europe. Her quest involves the unlikely prospect of determining if the Dracula of fictional fame is indeed alive and living as "the undead". And, the topper is the relationship between her father and Dracula. While this may sound far-fetched, Kostova has written a wonderfully detailed story with very interesting historical background about, among other topics, eastern Europe during the time of the Ottoman Empire. Readers with an interest in this time period might find this book more enjoyable that others. It certainly covers a subject that is different, but Kostova's first book shows she is an author of great and interesting promise.
by Alexander Trocchi
Scottish-born Beat author Alexander Trocchi's Cain's Book may just seem like another tale of a doomed drug addict's plight like Trainspotting , but the novel's tone quickly shifts to its own drumbeat. The book's main character, barge pilot & smack addict Joe Necchi (Trocchi in disguise), sifts through the seedy world of junkies & hustlers in New York yet despite the cost to his personal life somehow manages to enrich his artistic talents as a writer & artist. Necchi/Trocchi makes no apologies for his addiction (nor does he glamorize it either) and remains defiant to the end, a malcontent like the Biblical character Cain. No "cold turkey" redemptive/happy ending here. Compelling, brutal & raw, especially in it's scenes depicting drug use & sex. Not for small children.
A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian,
by Marina Lewycka
This book really doesn't have a whole lot to do with tractors - though you do learn some things - and it's not in Ukrainian either. Lewycka's debut novel tells the story of an elderly Ukrainian immigrant in England, Nikolai, who marries a much younger woman of questionable motives newly arrived from Ukraine named Valentina. His daughters Nadezhda and Vera, try desperately to rid themselves and especially their father of his new wife. The story is by turns hilarious and sad. Interspersed throughout the book is the story of how Nadezhda and Vera's parents met, married and survived the Second World War. In recalling her parent's past, Nadezhda discovers that as bad as she is, Valentina is deserving of sympathy.
by Ian McEwen
I don't know about you but, whenever I begin a book by Ian McEwen I get the immediate feeling that I am in good hands. He is as close as we can get to a master literary craftsman these days. His quiet confidence is once again on display in Saturday, which is just the latest in his long line of fine suspenseful novels.
The novel takes place in the course of a day. London neurosurgeon awakes early and spots in the morning sky a plane on fire, heading towards Heathrow. This may or may not symbolize that direction that this particular day will head for him. I won't go into the plot too much, just to say that I found it refreshing to read about a fictional character who is actually happy with his life. He's a successful surgeon. He appears to still be very much in love with his wife and has two well-adjusted and talented children, both of whom figure prominently in the book. This happiness is suddenly shattered in a matter of moments and the readers envy of Perowne quickly turns to revulsion at the circumstances he find he and his family themselves immersed in.
by Charles Palliser
This sprawling, richly ornamented novel of Regency England will appeal to anyone who enjoys tales of mystery and conspiracy; if you liked Name of the Rose, for instance, you are likely to enjoy this book. Its protagonist tries to unravel his family history through layer after layer of gothic complications and plots, while negotiating an English landscape and society reminiscent of Wilkie Collins. Despite its length, almost 800 pages, I never wished it were shorter.
The Mermaid Chair,
by Sue Monk Kidd
Sue Monk Kidd's newest book The Mermaid Chair is a great summer read. Set on Egret Island off the coast of South Carolina, you can almost feel the wildlife, tidal creeks and marshlands. Jessie Sullivan, age 43, has gone to the island where she grew up to help her mother who is having a mental breakdown. While discovering what is causing her mother's problems and how her mother's demons have affected Jessie's life, Jessie falls in love with Brother Thomas. Brother Thomas is about to take his final vows at the island's Benedictine monastery but is torn between the woman he has fallen in love with and his devotion to the church. I'm sure the many fans of Ms. Kidd's The Secret Life of Bees will enjoy this book as well.
Confessions of a Teen Sleuth,
by Chelsea Cain
Nancy Drew-Nickerson (yes, she married Ned!) was a real person - "titian tresses" and all. Carolyn Keene, her jealous college roommate, wrote those books based on stories Nancy told her and shamelessly marketed them as fiction. As the real Nancy ages in her "memoirs" she solves timely mysteries - thwarting evil Nazis and Nixon, too! A great parody of and affectionate tribute to America's most beloved teen detective.
The Romanov Prophecy,
by Steve Berry
This is a must read for any fan of the collapse of the Romanov dynasty. The central issue is the restoration of the Romanov dynasty in present day Russia and who will be the tsar. This involves a search for the person who has the most direct physical link to Nicholas II. Berry obviously has done his research very well as the murders of Nicholas II and his family are recounted in detail. He keeps a great pace going while mixing "present day" Russia and the events relating to the end of the Romanov dynasty. This book is highly recommended for "what if" readers of history. Not only is it enjoyable for the general reader but especially for those who find the end of the Romanovs endlessly intriguing.
Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood,
by Marjane Satrapi
With Seymour Hersh's recent uncovering of US plans for war with Iran still fresh in our minds, now seems like the perfect time to read this graphic novel. Drawn in stark black and white, and written with the simple, honest prose style of a child, Persepolis tells the story of the author's girlhood in Tehran. The only daughter of Communist intellectuals, Satrapi begins her tale at age nine, when all girls are forced to wear a veil to school by the religious fundamentalists who have taken over her government. Besides giving us a brief history of Iran, this book also puts a very human face on those who would surely be the first victims of any further aggression in that beleaguered nation - the children.
The Other Boleyn Girl,
by Philippa Gregory
This is a terrifically readable and endlessly fascinating epic read about Ann Boleyn's sister Mary. Through Mary's eyes the reader is propelled to Henry VIII's court and the intrigues and dramas in which Mary, Ann and their family played leading roles. And, what a family they were - conniving, ruthless, power-hungry and willing to do "whatever it took" to advance the Boleyn influence and power. Gregory creates the court of Henry VIII which is alive with hypnotic details about the customs, people, food, entertainments, politics and events of that time. At the center of the story is Mary Boleyn who is used by her family in an unending attempt to further the Boleyn name. This is a remarkably readable and wonderfully interesting book. The paperback edition is highly recommended as it includes a study guide and interview with Gregory in the end.
by Ken Follet
Follet continues his string of World War II novels with Hornet Flight, a most enjoyable and very entertaining book. Setting this story in occupied Denmark gives the reader a locale not often written about and this makes the story all the more interesting. Follet does his usual thorough and engaging job of creating a segment of society within occupied Denmark. The story revolves around the attempt to deliver information about the German radar system in Denmark to the British to stop the Germans from shooting down British Air Force bombers before they can destroy their intended targets. The cast of characters is lively and likable and includes a young hero and his first love, resistance members, Danish collaborationists, British undercover agents and even Danish criminals. An added bonus to the story is how an aging Hornet aircraft becomes key to possibly getting this information to the British. Follet includes a note at the beginning that some of his story is based on actual events, which adds more interest to this wonderfully readable book.
by Charles Dickens
One of Dickens' greatest novels, and startlingly modern in its concerns: old family secrets; morality; interpersonal relationships; and social injustice. This is not a book lawyers will love: a central feature is the generations-old law case of "Jarndyce and Jarndyce", a nightmarish lawsuit which the legal system has kept going for decades after the original plaintiffs have died or tried to drop the case. We also see, of course, the Dickens wealth of vivid characters and lively scenes. If you've never read Dickens, this is a good choice to try.
A Bit on the Side,
by William Trevor
William Trevor's new collection of short stories, A Bit on the Side (the Irish expression for adultery) shows him at the top of his form. In this collection the characters are varied and distinct, they find their lives are changed by circumstances beyond their control and the results can be devastating or uplifting. The themes are universal but his distinct style and descriptions are such that the reader is transported and set down unmistakably in the Emerald Isle. The New Yorker, that powerhouse publisher of short stories states that "William Trevor is probably the greatest living writer of short stories in the English language".
by John Crowley
A novel about the relationship, in the Cold War era, between a young college-student writer and a famous Russian expatriate poet; about how words relate to reality; about what is real and what isn't; about poetry, and about translation (again, what is real). John Crowley's ability to convey multiple nuances and levels of reality is well displayed in this, his latest novel; thus, the translation theme. As with all of Crowley's fiction, a sense of beauty and wonder pervades the book.
The Time Traveler's Wife,
by Audrey Niffenegger
Although I was originally drawn to this book because one of the main characters is a librarian, this has turned out to be one of the best stories I've ever listened to. Henry is a librarian who suffers from a condition that causes him to involuntarily time-travel. Clare, an artist, is his wife. It sounds like an ordinary life, yet Henry time travels, Clare meets Henry for the first time when she is 6 and he is in his 30s- but they are only 8 years apart in age! This story is told from both of their perspectives, and the prose is fluid and descriptive and heartfelt. It's beautiful. I cried. I highly recommend it. Additionally, this is a great story to listen to on audiobook, because there is a male and female reader to read Clare and Henry's parts, which only deepens the contrast between the two literary voices.
The Probable Future,
by Alice Hoffman
The Sparrow women of Unity, Massachusetts have all been born in the month of March, and each has woken on the morning of their 13th birthday with a special ability. Stella Sparrow Avery, the 13th descendant of the Rebecca Sparrow, the child who appeared at the edge of the woods so many years before, wakes on her 13th birthday to discover she has a power, one which will set off a series of events that will change many people's lives. This story takes place in the present, but it is always juxtaposed against the happenings of the Sparrow women of the past, as the big city setting of Boston is similarly set against the small town of Unity. This is a great book for those interested in historical fiction, as well as coming of age tales.
by William S. Burroughs
The newly revised edition of William S. Burroughs' groundbreaking Naked Lunch is one heck of a ride (albeit a nightmarish one). The exploits of an addict's plight and the various bizarre characters he meets while trying to score a fix will leave you reeling from start to finish. Check out the additional notes and essays by Burroughs and the editors as well.
Generations of Winter,
by Vassily Aksyonov
An epic novel in the style of Dr. Zhivago, Generations of Winter follows the Gradovs, a family of Moscow intellectuals, during the turbulent years of the early Soviet State through World War II. Historical figures are used to further the plot, including Stalin himself. This book vividly brings to life the paranoia and terror prevalent during the period, but is by no means depressing. Aksyonov himself was persecuted for his writings and emigrated to the U.S. in 1980.
Football's Best Short Stories,
edited by Paul D. Staudohar
"Are you ready for some football?" Then take a look at Football's Best Short Stories. This collection includes stories written by such unlikely authors as John Steinbeck, Damon Runyon and Ellery Queen. You'll be pleasantly surprised since these stories deal with more than just football!
The Blackbird Papers,
by Ian Smith
NBC News medical correspondent Ian Smith, M.D. writes an exciting thriller, The Blackbird Papers, featuring New York FBI agent, Sterling Bledsoe. Sterling is called by his brother's wife, Kay, when her husband, Dartmouth Professor Wilson Bledsoe doesn't return from an awards party in his honor at the college. Sterling later learns that his brother had stopped to help two rednecks along the side of the road, and then was found dead in the woods with a racial epithet carved into his chest. Sterling investigates his brother's murder, although he and Wilson never got along, and Sterling was always in the shadow of his famous brother. As Sterling begins to look into the murder, he discovers that nothing is what is seems. He finds his brother Wilson's research into hundreds of dead blackbirds and interviews with students, colleagues and even the college president. When the police begin to suspect Sterling, he has to race against time to prove his innocence and find his brothers killers. There are enough twists and turns in this fast paced thriller to keep you reading long into the night, and hoping for the next Sterling Bledsoe thriller.
by Chang Rae Lee
Aloft by Chang Rae Lee is a three-generational novel of 20th century America- from Ellis island to McMansions. The principal character is a member of the second generation, giving the reader insight into the past and future of the battle family (once Battaglia), and the story of their assimilation into suburban life. As one reviewer stated:..."the social concerns of this novel are land, money and the pursuit of happiness". But in the context of its social commentary is an absorbing tale of family life with all its trials and tribulations, some unique, some quite familiar. This book has it all.
A Painted House,
by John Grisham
A Painted House is a departure from Grisham's other works, which deal mostly with mystery and involve lawyers and legal issues. It is a novel of the land. It describes life on a cotton farm in the 1950s and what it must have been like living on that farm. It is inspired by the author's own childhood. The story follows one boy's journey from innocence to experience. Luke Chandler is a 7-year-old boy who works with his family picking cotton for a living. This year, 1952, seems like it will be a perfect harvest bringing more money, so that Luke's family will be able to buy their land. Unfortunately, Luke's uneventful existence is broken apart when he is forced to witness a killing and a murder and learns things that he would rather have not known, and he grows up because of it. This story is warm and wonderful and a nice piece of literature. Grisham is truly a master storyteller.
The Queen's Fool,
by Phillippa Gregory
OK, so I picked up The Other Boleyn Girl based on the cover art - I admit it! I'm glad I did, though, because it turned out to be a great book. I enjoyed it so much that I had to try the second book in the series, which was just as good. Set in Tudor England and containing a great amount of historical detail, these books have everything: adventure, sex, intrigue and great stories. I found myself looking forward to my train ride home, just so I could continue reading.
Oryx And Crake,
by Margaret Atwood
Oryx And Crake, by award-winning Canadian author Margaret Atwood, is a not-so-inconceivable tale foretelling the end of humanity as we know it. Snowman, the story's protagonist and seemingly sole-survivor of a global biological holocaust, is a man haunted by the memory of his best friend Crake, and the love of a mysterious woman, Oryx. He recounts a world ruled by ruthless corporations that vied with one another for top intellectual talent, talent that was granted free reign to create designer genetically-engineered abominations in the name of corporate profits. Atwood's prose is rich and inventive in its description of an elitist, market-driven society where the dollar means everything and the building blocks of life are the means by which to acquire it. I consider this story extremely pertinent to our "real" world where governments are allowing corporations to sell genetically-modified food and to patent genetic code not even invented by them, but by Mother Nature. Oryx And Crake left me wondering whether the human race truly is its own worst enemy, and whether we won't eventually be pushed aside for a species less inclined to destroy itself and everything else around it.
My Sister's Keeper,
by Jodi Picoult
Anna Fitzgerald is not sick, but she might as well be. By age thirteen, she has undergone countless medical procedures so that her older sister, Kate, can somehow fight the leukemia that has plagued her since childhood. The product of genetic planning, Anna was conceived as a bone marrow match for Kate -- a life and a role that she has never challenged...until now. Like most teenagers, Anna is beginning to question who she truly is. But unlike most teenagers, she has always been defined in terms of her sister -- and so Anna makes a decision that for most would be unthinkable, a decision that will tear her family apart and have perhaps fatal consequences for the sister she loves.
The Known World,
by Edward P. Jones
Jones was awarded the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for fiction for this book and it is a wonderfully rich read. He writes about a little-known phenomenon in American history - free black persons who owned slaves before the Civil War. This is a densely-woven tale involving the lives of free blacks, slaves and whites who live in Virginia. Central to the story is Augustus Townsend who is free and an exceptional woodworker. Each character is affected by the peculiar institution of slavery and they all are vibrantly created by Jones. It is highly recommended!
In the Time of the Butterflies,
by Judith Alverez
This is a wonderful story about 4 sisters growing up in the Dominican Republic during the 1960's under the Trujuillo dictatorship. Written as a novel, it is based on a true story. Alverez does a wonderful job of describing the beautiful landscape of the Dominican Republic and makes tragic events in the history of that country come alive.
Game of Kings,
by Dorothy Dunnett
First in the "Lymond Chronicles" series of historic novels, this page-turner follows the adventures of Scottish nobleman Francis Crawford in the era of Mary Tudor and Mary Queen of Scots. Like a cross between James Bond and Walter Scott, with a lot of cultural history thrown in, the book will draw you on through the adventures, intrigues, joys and sorrows of Crawford and his compatriots during a tempestuous period. Crawford himself, brilliant and mercurial, is a wonderful creation.
The Dew Breaker,
by Edwidge Danticat
This is a terrifically written collection of short stories about a group of Haitians and their experiences in Haiti and when they left their homeland. Looming throughout these stories is the presence of the Dew Breaker, a torturer who loyally served the Duvalier regime. Eventually, the reader realizes there is a connection among these characters and the final story revolves around the evil man himself. Danticat has gotten great reviews for this new book.
Daughter of God,
by Lewis Purdue
Daughter of God by Lewis Purdue is a fast paced, well written thrliler blending themes of Nazi art plunder, a second Messiah, Hitler's blackmail of the Pope, secret Swiss bank deposits, and an ambitious Cardinal eager to be the next Pope. If you were disappointed in the Da Vinci Code you will not be disappointed in this - better written and no loose ends.