Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Shut Your Eyes Tight

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, August 26, 2011


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

Just say no to this one

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

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

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

Just say no to this one!

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

Sunday, August 21, 2011

The Return of Captain John Emmett

The Return of Captain John EmmettThe Return of Captain John Emmett
 by Elizabeth Speller, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, July 2011

Some of the prose was excellent, the research was outstanding but it did not all come together for me

London in 1920 is the setting for this mystery. The protagonist is Laurence Bartram, a young widower who has lost his wife and child while he was serving at the front in France in WWI. Bartram is withdrawn and uninvolved in life as he struggles to deal with the horrors of the war and the personal losses he has suffered. A letter from the sister of a school friend asking him to investigate the circumstances of her brother’s suicide draws him back into society. Laurence, with the obligatory sidekick, his friend Charles looks into the suicide of Captain John Emmett. As you might expect the investigation uncovers evidence that makes the suicide less likely and murder more likely. Laurence finds that Capt. Emmett was involved in an incident during the war where an officer was charged with cowardice and executed for it. This allows the author to examine how shellshock was treated during the First World War, as he continues to puzzle out the circumstances of Emmett’s death.
I may have World War I fatigue myself. I have read quite a bit of both fiction and nonfiction from that time period. This story had good period detail and examined an interesting issue – the way the military handled soldiers who refused to fight – but all in all it left me fairly unexcited. The mystery aspect was long and meandering. Bartram never focused on the obvious suspects - relatives of the executed officer. When the murderer was revealed he arrived from left field in my opinion. Also the characters were not well developed despite lots of detail I found myself hard pressed to care about them. I think the issue may have been that the author couldn’t decide whether he was writing a mystery or writing literacy fiction. Some of the prose was excellent, the research was outstanding but it did not all come together for me. If you are interested in the effects of WWI on the post war British I’d recommend the Maisie Dobbs series. In that series the characters are well drawn and the mystery complex enough to engage. Also quite good are the early novels by Charles Todd in the Ian Rutledge series. Perhaps if I hadn’t read mysteries in those two series I’d be kinder to this one but it just didn’t do it for me.

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

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Rules of Civility

by Amor Towles, Viking Adult, July 2011

If you want to visit another time another place that is both romantic and sophiscated read this book

Spoilers ahead
In Amor Towles stunning first novel, rich with period detail, the elegance of New York City in the late 1930s comes alive. The story centers on Katey, Eve and Tinker, three friends. The two women are roommates in a boarding house in NYC and they meet Tinker, an investment banker, in a jazz club. The story is told by Katey in a flash back. All of the action comes in the year 1938. Katey (aka Katya) is the daughter of Russian immigrants working in the steno pool at a law firm but out to better her circumstances. Eve is a Midwestern girl, intent on making her own way rather than take money from her well to do parents. Tinker, a man of mystery, seems the very essence of an old money Ivy League WASP now working on Wall St. The trio are involved in an auto accident when Tinker drives their car into a pole. Eve is seriously injured and disfigured. While initially Tinker and Katey seem destined to be a couple, Eve’s injuries change that dynamic. Tinker and Eve travel to Florida and Europe; Katey is courted by Wallace a wealthy, idealistic, liberal intent on fighting in the Spanish Civil War.

In the retelling this plot sound somewhat insipid but nothing could be farther from the truth with this story. Katey is a strong heroine. While she is intrigued by the world of wealth and security, she sees in the upper classes she remains grounded and loyal to her upbringing. The story focuses on the choices she makes, some small some large that drive her life - quitting her job, calling in sick, getting a ride to the city from a suburban party.

All of the characters are interesting – flawed but so believable. The relationships among the three friends and some of the minor characters that are introduced are fascinating and really well told. The dialogue is witty and entertaining, reminiscent of Nick and Nora Charles! Many reviewers have noted the similarity to Fitzgerald and I’d have to agree. Pre WWII high society NYC has never seemed as alive as in this story. If you want to visit another time, another place that is both romantic and sophiscated read this book.

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

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Seven Seasons in Siena

by Robert Rodi, June 2011, Ballantine Books

This is a fun well written book. Rodi has a conversational style that is very engaging.

Each summer Sienna hosts a bareback horse race right in the central piazza. They haul in turf, cover the stone and transform the city into a wild affair. Ten of the seventeen independent societies, called contrade compete for the win. The societies have ancient roots, defined Sienese geography, clubhouses and a strong family/clan hold on their members. Where in the US someone would be introduced and their occupation named, in Sienna their contrada association would be part of the introduction. The author, Robert Rodi, a Chicagoan falls in love with the Sienese and vows to become more than a spectator to this community. Rodi has marginal Italian language skills providing for a number of comic scenes in this book.

Rodi writes of his experiences in seven trips to Siena over several years. Through a friend he is introduced to the Noble Contrada of the Caterpillar. He gains entry into the contrada and gives the reader a unique view of the Palio. The horserace is quintessentially Italian affair. There are feuds and alliance (centuries old) that are integral to the race. While the horses play a part in the outcome of the race, so does the strategy of the contrade. In this case strategy translates into bribing other contrade to allow a win for an ally. As I said uniquely Italian. The contrade provide a social structure for the Sienese. Rodi’s attempts to gain inclusion in the Caterpillar contrada are both poignant and awkward. He is drawn to the camaraderie of the group and works hard to gain acceptance. He volunteers in the kitchen for contrada dinners, runs in a relay race, and fulfills a vow to walk from a local village to Siena in honor of a Caterpillar Palio win. Finally as he despairs of ever gaining acceptance by the Sienese he is invited to be baptized into the Caterpillar contrada.

This is a fun well written book. Rodi has a conversational style that is very engaging. He is so honest in his telling and so self deprecating that I just loved him. This might not be the only book you should read if you are traveling to Italy but if you are going or even if you wish you were, read this one you won’t regret it.

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

Thursday, August 4, 2011

To End All Wars

by Adam Hochschild, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, May 2011

...definitely worth the time for those who enjoy reading history.

The author takes a different angle in this very readable WWI history. Drawing portraits of those British who opposed the war – aristocrats, journalists, ordinary folks, suffragettes, Irish patriots and even a former prime minister- Adam Hochschild brings them to life. The story is told chronologically from Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee through the Boer War (a new slice of history for me) right up and through the carnage that was WWI.

This is as much a social history of the times as a military story. The backgrounds of the two major military players (Douglas Haig and John French) are told in detail including the story of French’s sister Charlotte Despard a leading pacifist and antiwar demonstrator. Since the causalities of the war were more likely to come from Britain’s ruling classes (including the son of Rudyard Kipling, brother of the future queen, etc.) the courage that it took to oppose this conflict was considerable. The author tells these stories in a fairly even handed unemotional way. He doesn’t shirk the telling of the trench warfare though. The military strategy (?) employed by every general in this war was to send men directly into the fire of machine guns where little or no progress is made in four years of fighting. The losses incurred on the battlefields are truly incredible, while this story is told with Britain at the center; the numbers of men killed or wounded throughout Europe were stunning. You really have to read these sections of the story in small bites to let some of this senselessness sink in.

The characters that Hochschild has chosen to focus on really give the story a view into every social stratum in Britain. Douglas Haig the commanding general throughout most of the war and a good friend of the King is a window in to the unimaginative world of what was the British military command. Charlotte Despard and Emily Hobhouse were aristocratic Brits who actively worked to oppose this war and in Hobhouse’s case was the only Brit who attempted to bring the two sides to the negotiating table during the war. The story of the Wheeler family set up and tried for treason gave a view of socialist/communist sentiment among the working classes. The Pankhurst family, prominent suffragettes divided by their sentiments on the war shows the women’s movement in the early 20th century and also the rise of communism among the British. Kier Hardie, a socialist MP, an early critic of Britain’s involvement in this conflict is profiled and speaks for many unionists in the country. The power of the empire and British nationalism overwhelm Hardie and most socialist hopes for international cooperation that would have avoided fighting among the working classes.

In addition to being a fairly good recounting of WWI, this book does a great job of describing Britain in its waning days as a colonial power. While not quite on the same level as Guns of August, Tuchman’s masterpiece history of the beginning of this conflict, it is definitely worth the time for those who enjoy reading history.

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