Friday, December 31, 2010

A Shout Out to Fellow Book Bloggers

One of the fun things for me this past year has been discovering the book blogging world.  So many wildly intelligent people sharing their take on books and the literary world!  My whole reading experience has been enriched reading their content.   Through their writing and recommendations I've expanded my literary comfort zone to include new genres, taken deeper pleasure in the books I've read and really feel part of the book blogging on line community. To each of them I say thanks and keep writing! I wanted to single out a few of my fellow bloggers who have been so influential in my reading/thinking (not to mention the TBR pile).

Greg at The New Dork Review of Books.  I don't think I ever commented on a blog or been part of an online discussion until I started to read Greg's blog.  Each and every post is thought provoking!

Rebecca at The Book Frog for all kinds of fun things book related and keeping us updated on what's new in the book world.

Thomas at My Porch for reviews of eclectic books that would never cross my TBR pile without his insightful reviews (and fun pics)

Rebecca at The Book Lady's Blog.  for all kinds of things - fascinating posts, insightful commenters,  the best "best of" lists - an all around great blog

Off on a Tangent for all the bookish news around presented in such a witty way

Rachel at a home between the pages for great reviews of old books and new.

The Wise Owl Review where the reviews are very good and you actually want to win the books they are giving away.

The Reading Ape for such outstanding, thoughtful content it makes me wondered why I blog!

 Happy New Year to all, and best wishes for great reading experiences in 2011!

Wednesday, December 29, 2010


Freedom: A Novel (Oprah's Book Club)
Freedom: A Novel 
by Jonathan Franzen, Sept 2010, Farrar, Straus and Giroux

...while I enjoyed this story and loved the prose I felt cheated in the end that these people were not really worth my time

This is an epic story told over a thirty year time period. It has three main characters, Walter and Patty Berglund, and Walter’s best friend Richard Katz. Others pop in and out of the story but the action centers on these three. We first come to know them in their college years in Minnesota. Walter is a straight arrow character, very rigid but appealing if not exciting. Richard is the dark side – a nihilistic musician attractive to women for all of the wrong reasons. Patty is an athlete on a basketball scholarship to Minnesota. She is an interesting character with numerous contradictions. Patty is attracted to Richard but ends up making the safer choice of Walter. We are treated to an in depth look at their early married years as gentrifying yuppies in an up and coming St. Paul neighborhood. We also get an examination of the families of Walter and Patty. Walter and Patty have a supportive even loving married life but Patty continues to be attracted to Richard. In a plot turn that I found somewhat hard to believe the liberal environmentally conscious Berglunds allow their 15 year old son Joey to move in with the red neck next store neighbors and carry on an openly sexual relationship with the neighbors’ daughter.

During a midlife crisis, Patty succumbs to temptation and sleeps with Richard during a two day stay at the Berglund’s’ remote lake cottage. This destroys the marriage for Patty but Walter is unaware of the breach of trust. Walter accepts a position as executive director of an environmental trust agency in D.C. and he and Patty move east. The setup for them is again fairly strange. They live in a house owned by the trust and share living quarters with Walter’s assistant, an attractive young Indian-American. Patty continues in a deep depression. Events accelerate at this point. Richard reappears and betrays to Walter Patty’s indiscretion, the Berglund son Joey becomes in involved in international arms dealing (again to me a widely improbable event) and the Berglund marriage falls apart. Walter takes up with his assistant and essentially has a breakdown that causes him to leave his job and indulge a life style more reminiscent of the 70s than the new millennium. The assistant, Lalitha, is killed in a car accident and Walter retreats to a hermit like existence at the lake cottage in Minnesota. Patty tries staying with Richard but pines for her life with Walter. The ending that brings Patty and Walter reconciled and back together is very satisfying.

Let me apologize for a plot summary that reads like a soap opera, but condensing 570 pages into a couple of paragraphs with my poor skills  inevitably reduces the story in a cartoonish way. This was an entertaining and very readable book. It is certainly a modern novel for the new millennium about people who I found interesting though I did have trouble relating to them. I am always complaining that characters have no depth in a lot of what I read,  Not true here, we are inside their heads for sure! The story is entertaining in and of itself, without looking for any other levels of meaning. Franzen is a talented writer, some of his prose rings so true and is so amusingly descriptive that you just need to stop and savor it. There are lots of references to Tolstoy throughout the book and while this family is certainly unhappy in its own unique way, there are no great characters here in my opinion. Maybe that in itself says something about the modern world but while I enjoyed this story and loved the prose I felt cheated in the end that these people were not really worth my time.

I read an advanced review copy provided by the publisher.

Thursday, December 23, 2010


by John Lescroat, Dutton Adult, January 2011

I would not rate this as one of the stronger books in this series but still a page turner and worth a read.

Spoilers ahead!!
Over at least ten novels John Lescroat has created a fictional San Francisco world with recurring characters from politics, the law and the police. We are treated to their struggles with legal, moral and ethical issues as they fight crime and punish criminals. In this story Wes Farrell, a defense attorney and law partner of Dismas Hardy takes center stage. Farrell has been recently elected as the DA in San Francisco. Farrell is confronted with an influential newspaper owning family (the Cutlers) whose son Roland, a convicted murderer has just had his prison term ended because of a technicality in his prior trial. Farrell, not settling easily into his new role as chief prosecutor, doesn’t fight to prevent Roland’s release on bail. Despite pleas from the police (Inspector Glitsky) and others in the DA’s office Farrell allows Roland’s release as he awaits a new trial. Mayhem ensues. A witness from the first trail is murdered; an investigator from the DA’s office is killed. The jury foreman from the first trial, who was instrumental in ensuring Roland’s conviction, finds his wife murdered also.

There is a brisk pace to this novel and the characters have a refreshing depth to them. The main characters have their personal stories in addition to their professional roles. The setting, San Francisco is well drawn, the weather is appropriately poor and the characters are continually looking for a parking spot – a detail that rings true. The plotting isn’t complex. For the most part the killer is known and the story explores the legal issues around getting Roland back in jail. There is a subplot related to one of the murders but I admit to figuring that one out early in the story. I had a real problem with the way the author resolved the story. After spending most of the novel trying to work the legal system to lock up this guy in the end the author took the easy way out and had the entire family murdered by a maid who had been raped by Roland. The secondary plot about the murder of the jury foreman’s wife is resolved with a little more suspense.

While this chapter in the story of San Francisco crime fighting community contains the cut throat politics and usual cynicism we come to expect from these guys it is not a particularly compelling mystery. Lescroat fans will not rate this as one of the stronger books in this series but still a page turner and worth a read.

I read an advanced reader copy of this book provided by the publisher.

Friday, December 17, 2010

The Thousand

The Thousand
by Kevin Guilfoile, August, 2010, Knopf

the lack of a credible villain was an issue but all in all not a bad read

Right up front let me say I will struggle to succinctly summarize this plot and even with my best effort somehow this story will sound way more ridiculous that I actually found it to be. There are a ton of things going on in the narrative. There is Canada Gold, the daughter of a murdered musical genius, who is pursued by an ancient cult of followers of Pythagoras. This cult has survived for thousands of years handing down mathematical knowledge that enables them to cause disasters for profit. The cult (aka The Thousand) is in the midst of an internal war between two factions – acusamati and mathamatici. Canada Gold is a numbers genius further enabled by a wired system installed in her brain that among other things allows her to win money in casinos. Canada is a quirky but likeable character. Her sometime boyfriend Wayne Jennings is obsessed with her and becomes entangled in the murders commissioned by the Thousand. Despite his obsession Wayne is also a very likeable character. There is a Chicago lawyer with an enormous secret. Canada’s estranged mother with her own set of problems and a Chicago detective trying to figure out the whole mess.

While there is no shortage of great characters in this story what there isn’t is any well realized villains. The Thousand are described but none of them are developed into characters that can elicit fear or even mild anxiety. Despite everything this story reads very well. It moves at a fast pace, the subplot of Wayne in pursuit of Canada to help her was good. The ending which includes a terrorist plot that shuts down the electricity in Chicago for five days and a city wide riot as the backdrop to the conclusion provides lots of excitement. I enjoyed this story; I think the lack of a credible villain was an issue that kept me from giving this a higher rating but all in all not a bad read.  If thrillers like this fascinate you, you should check out a forensic pathologist education. 
I read a copy of this book borrowed from the Free Library of Philadelphia

Monday, December 13, 2010

Lost in a Good Book

Lost in a Good Book (A Thursday Next Novel)
Lost in a Good Book (A Thursday Next Novel)
by Jason Fforde, Penguin Books, February 2004

...if you are open to some fantasy mixed in with a love of classic literature this is a wonderful series.

Lost in a Good Book is the second in the Thursday Next fantasy detective series. The story picks up where The Eyre Affair left off - Thursday, a Literary Detective Special Ops agent, is married to Landen and expecting their first child. Sounds normal right – not a chance!! Things immediately go wrong for Thursday; she runs afoul of the Goliath Corporation, her fame from the Eyre Affair haunts her, her husband is eradicated from the time line to force her to work for Goliath Corporation, an unknown villain is trying to kill her by coincidence, and oh by the way the world is scheduled to end in five days!
Word play and puns are the norm in this author’s fiction. Some of it works well (doomed detective pairs Phodder and Kannon; Walken and Dedman) and some of it is bothersome (enough with Jack Schitt,). This series is really bonbons for literature lovers. Thursday escapes some of her pursuers by delving into works of fiction where she is recruited for the Jurisfiction team, an elite group of fictional characters who protect and maintain the integrity of all the world's books. She is apprenticed to Miss Havisham of Dickens’s Great Expectations fame, complete in tattered wedding dress and with a crotchety personality. We encounter the Red Queen, the Cat (as in Cheshire) and from the Arthurian legend King Pellinore and the Questing Beast. We attend a Kafkaesque trial and private conversations between characters are conducted in the footnotes using the footerphone.

I am sure you will not read a more ridiculous plot summary than the one I’ve just written but if you are open to some fantasy mixed in with a love of classic literature this is a wonderful series. Despite my poor plot summary these stories hold together very well. Thursday Next is an engaging heroine and Fforde’s originality and creativity is over the top. Read this series in order; it adds to the fun and titrates the fantasy in acceptable doses!
I read a copy of this book borrowed from The Free Library of Philadelphia

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

My Top Books of 2010!

One of the rewards of writing a book blog is being able to look back and reflect on the books that I've read in the past year.  I started the blog in April so while I don't have a full years worth of reading to look at I have read over 50 books in that time period.  Who knew!  I always knew I was a reader but even I am surprised at the number.  I do read primarily mystery/thrillers but also a number of histories and new for me a small number of what I'd call literary fiction.  So just for the fun of it I have decided to list the 10 books I most enjoyed this year. Not all were first published in 2010 and they are not necessarily all among the best sellers this year but they are the ones I found most satisfying and memorable.  So in alphabetical order my top ten:

  • Black Echo (Crime)- among the best crime fiction novels. Nobody does it better than Michael
  • Citizens of London (History) -  more WWII (a trend?) but the suffering and valour of the Brits and the Americans who were with them is a great read.
  • Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter  (Mystery)- a satisfyingly complete novel – great characters, great sense of place, great story
  • Room  (Contemporary Fiction)- a ripped from the headlines story so imaginatively told, short listed for the Mann-Booker.
  • The Eyre Affair (Fantasy)- great fun in a literary fantasy series
  • The Immoral Life of Henrietta Lacks (History) - a must read for medical professionals but something for everyone in this story of medicine, ethics, civil rights and family history.
  • The Rembrandt Affair (International spy thriller) - a spy story with the emotional depth, plot twists, realism, suspense and philosophical thought.
  • The Thousand Autumns of Jacob deZoet - (Historical Fiction) at its best.  Visit 18th century Japan, immerse your self in the culture and enjoy the story.
  • Unbroken (History) - anytime you become impatient in traffic or with long lines at the airport give a thought to what these men went through in the Pacific theater in WWII. An incredible story, elegantly told.
  • Wild Swans (History) - China through the 20th century told through a family story
If you are looking for other book  lists for 2010 try the NYT top 10 booksAmazon's best books of 2010 ,the Library Journal top ten and Publishers Weekly top ten list.  From my list you'll most often find Room, Unbroken and The Immortal Life of HL on those lists.
So what books hit your top ten list?  I have avoided calling any one book my favorite of the year, but do you have one?

Friday, December 3, 2010


Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption
by Laura Hillenbrand, Random House,November 2010

Unbroken has a hero for the ages, adventures so fantastic as to be unbelievable, unforgettable characters, life affirming redemption and forgiveness all written in the most elegant readable prose. Read this book!

Unbroken is the amazing story of Louie Zamperini, a first generation American. Louie grows up in pre WWII California as the local juvenile delinquent always in some type of minor trouble. He leaves his troubled life and with help from his brother trains into a world class runner, who in an incredibly short time wins a spot on the 1936 American Olympic team, competes in Berlin, meets Hitler and steals Nazi souvenirs! Louie joins the Army Air Force (AAF) washes out of pilot training and becomes a bombardier. Louie survives a Japanese attack on his base, and an air mission where his plane is incredibly disabled but returns to base. Louie is downed in the Pacific and with his pilot and another crewman drifts 2000 miles in the Pacific on a disintegrating raft. During this time they are strafed by enemy planes, fight off sharks that attack them in the raft, are scorched by the relentless sun and overcome debilitating hunger and thirst during their 47 day ordeal. This story could end right here and it would be a worthwhile inspiring story but the suffering is just beginning. Louie is captured by the Japanese and over the next two years is shuffled through a number of POW camps where the prisoner treatment is heartbreaking.
This is an incredible book; Laura Hillenbrand has taken an iconic story and turned it into a gripping page turner. I read the book in two days, I couldn’t put it down. She has integrated the story of the Pacific airmen into Louie’s narrative in a seamless way. The extensive research that served Hillenbrand so well in Seabiscuit is here also. It adds to the power of this story. Her sources for Louie’s early life allow her to give an in depth portrait of Louie as a young man. So when the war starts we know him well. Her telling of his ordeal is masterful, it isn’t really clear to me how she is capable of bringing such drama to a known story but it was there for me.

The account of the POW experience from Louie and other prisoners is deeply disturbing, what these men endured and lived through was awful. Hillenbrand makes the point that the loss of dignity that they endured was more debilitating than the physical torture. Make no mistake the physical torture was appalling. While a small number of Japanese helped the POWs many more were hostile. Hillenbrand points out that the death rate among Pacific POWs was between 25-37% while in Europe it was less than 2%. Death was never far from them. As the POWs received news of the coming allied victory most believed the Japanese would execute the POWs when Japan lost the war. This actually happened to the POWs on Wake Island and in some other camps. The POWs incredible spirit and hope in the face of such adversity was an inspiring theme in this story.

{SPOILERS in this paragraph}  Hillenbrand deals with Louie’s life after the war. He was suffering from post traumatic stress disorder but that diagnosis was unknown then. He sinks into alcoholism and self destructive behavior as his personal life disintegrates. Of all he endured I found this part most disheartening. Hillenbrand points out that the majority of Pacific POWs came home with life altering physical and mental problems. It seemed so unfair after all they endured not to get a happy ending. Fortunately Louie, ever the strong soul, has a Christian conversion and rights his life. In an extraordinary act Louie returns to Japan meets with his guards and forgives them! I did not have the same reaction and was unhappy that his chief torturer, “the Bird” was able to live out his life without paying for his cruelty and murderous behavior. Louie’s true revenge is a life well lived, he continues in good health today at the age of 94!

As I finish this review I’ve thought of six other things about this book worthy of discussion but don’t want to make the review too long. Run to your favorite bookstore and get this book! It has a hero for the ages, adventures so fantastic as to be unbelievable, unforgettable characters, life affirming redemption and forgiveness all written in the most elegant readable prose.

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