Monday, January 30, 2012

The Spy Who Jumped Off the Screen

The Spy Who Jumped Off the Screen by Thomas Caplan, Viking Adult, January 2012

...a mediocre thriller at best

Spoilers Galore
A Hollywood actor who used to be a Spec Ops soldier, a beautiful English jewelry designer, an international disarmament specialist and finally a billionaire with a luxurious yacht that doubles as a small city are the characters in this spy thriller. The theft of nuclear bombs from the former Soviet Union is the plot driver. The action moves from the Black Sea, to London, Rome, Tangiers and Gibraltar. All the ingredients of a good thriller are present. Ty Hunter the actor is given a secret mission by the US President to infiltrate the closed circle of friends around Ian Santal the billionaire suspected of smuggling the nukes out of Russia. Hunter falls in love with Ian’s god daughter, the beautiful Isabella. Isabella unfortunately is engaged to Ian’s business partner Philip Frost. Hunter immediately suspects that Frost is the driving force in getting the nukes into Arab hands. The hunt is on for the proof and the nukes as the characters bounce around the Mediterranean from Tangiers to Spain and then Gibraltar. In the end as expected Hunter finds the nukes, gets the girl and has the villain get away to live again in a sequel.

Let me say first off that I did read this book almost straight through to the end. While it is far from the worst thriller I’ve read there were quite a few shortcomings to this story. The plot moves along very slowly with almost no action for pages on end. The descriptions of the technical details of the nuclear bombs (arming, disarming, moving, shielding, etc.) went on way too long. The character development was fairly thin, the villains actually got better back stories more fully described that the good guys. The dialogue is wooden and cliché filled.

I was surprised to see the glowing introduction written by Bill Clinton (a famous reader of thrillers) until I read he was a college friend of the author. My opinion, different from Bill’s, is this is a mediocre thriller at best. Read something by Daniel Silva, Alex Berenson or Paul Haig for a good thriller.

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

Thursday, January 26, 2012

How It All Began

How It All Began by Penelope Lively, Viking Adult January 2012

...the serendipitous nature of the story is really its allure; the author does a great job of stringing together events into an impressive story that is very enjoyable

This story begins with an elderly woman, Charlotte being mugged in London. Following this a cascading series of events that are triggered by the mugging form the basis of the story. A marriage is threatened, an affair discovered, an elderly peer attempts to regain his youthful vigor and importance, an interior designer finds an unlikely business partner, a newly arrived immigrant finds acceptance and love in an unexpected way. Each of these story lines is developed and interspersed through to the end of the story. The author really examines the effect of chance on a number of unconnected lives. I hate to summarize this story with any more detail as the story is the charm of this novel.

The novel is very well written, the dialogue is rich and true. The characters are genuine and for the most part likeable. The serendipitous nature of the story is really its allure; the author does a great job of stringing together events into an impressive story that is very enjoyable. I loved the ending – nothing ambiguous about the fate of these characters, I’ve recently finished a couple of novels with murky endings, so this ending was much appreciated. This is my first Penelope Lively novel, I had never heard of her but clearly she is a well recognized gem of a writer – several Booker short lists and a Booker prize. Lucky me a new author!!

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

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Pearl Harbor Christmas

Pearl Harbor Christmas: A World at War, December 1941 by Stanley Weintraub, Da Capo Press, November 2011

...the author took on too many story lines and did not develop them enough to interest the reader

This story is a chronicle of events in the two to three weeksleading up to Christmas after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. The author writes of Churchill’s visit to the White House where he meets extensively with Roosevelt and plans war strategy. It also touches on people and events in the Philippines where Mac Arthur is evacuating to Corregidor and where American soldiers and other military personnel (sans MacArthur) will make a doomed last stand. Some of the other story lines touch on events in Singapore, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Port Moseby, Wake Island, Russia and the UK. This is a short book, 228 pages and in my opinion touches lightly and inadequately on most of these story lines.

This is the type of book I usually love, a behind the scenes look at people that are at the center of world changing historical events. This book did not meet my expectations, I believe the author took on too many story lines and did not develop them enough to interest the reader. Other than the story line that followed Roosevelt and Churchill none of the other stories was told in enough depth or detail. Instead of well marked scene switches I found myself continually confused as the story venue changed – one paragraph dealing with the defense of Singapore and the next paragraph telling about events in Russia. The promise of a background story of the US in a festive but unsettled holiday mood also wasn’t meet; I found few interesting atmospheric details in the author’s story. The story was told chronologically and it just didn’t work. I think the story line was a good one but not well executed.

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

Friday, January 20, 2012

The Innocent

The Innocent by Taylor Stevens, Crown Publishers, December 2011

...all in all this sequel is not as good as the first book in the series.

Taylor Stevens is back with a second novel featuring Vanessa Michael Munroe as the central character. The story centers on the recovery of a child (Hannah) from a cult (The Chosen). The child was kidnapped from her mother five years before and has now been located in a cult location in Argentina. The child is the daughter of Munroe’s long time friend Logan. Working with Logan and other survivors who have left The Chosen, Munroe hatches the plan to free this child from the cult. Along the way it becomes apparent that the Chosen are also engaged in child sex rings. The action move right along as Munroe inserts herself into the cult family and tries to free Hannah. There are a couple of minor plots that are interspersed throughout the book that also add to the suspense of the story.

Munroe is a flawed heroine at best. Her troubled life has produced a psyche that is deeply damaged. In the first book – The Informationist – Munroe had some violent tendencies that were merely worrying, in this story she has completely broken down and commits some horrifically violent acts while sleep walking (yes, I am not kidding). The author continues to liken Munroe to Lisabeth Salander (Dragoon Tattoo) but these stories are just not that good. They lack the sense of place that comes with the Swedish stories. The heroine lacks the vulnerability present in Salander’s character and the violence seems to me over the top and presented to shock rather than advance the story. The plot is well formed and entertaining but I found the characterizations wanting. All in all this sequel is not as good as the first book in the series.

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

Monday, January 16, 2012

A Sea of Troubles

A Sea of Troubles
by Donna Leon, narrated by David Colacci, 8hrs. 7 mins., August 2011

...the tenth novel in this series is every bit as good as earlier ones.

I have always enjoyed the Donna Leon series with Commissario Guido Brunetti as the protagonist and the city of Venice as the backdrop. This is the tenth novel in the series and it is every bit as good as earlier ones. There are a couple of hallmarks of this series. There is always an environmental theme, there is always a slice of Venetian life, and there are always wonderful passages about Italian food and drink. Leon recognizes the corruption and dishonesty of what is the Italian government and despite it has Brunetti working for justice.
This story is centered on the island of Pellistrina, which is a barrier island between the Venetian lagoon and the Adriatic Sea. A tight knit community of fisherman (the Vongolari) closes ranks when the murders of two local fishermen come under police investigation. Nobody would ever describe this story as a thriller but the mystery rolls along at a relaxed pace as Brunetti attempts to know the community on the island. Signorina Electra, beautiful secretary to his superior, insists on visiting relatives on the island in an attempt to dig up information that will solve the murder. Brunetti though loyal to his wife finds himself obsessed with Electra’s safety causing some stress in his marriage and some loss of focus on the key parts of the murder investigation. As Brunetti oversees the investigation we learn more about the deteriorating conditions that challenge the centuries old fishing industry of Venice. There is always a little despair and cynicism in Brunetti’s response to Italian government corruption and it is in evidence here. Despite the obstacles, the investigation moves forward and Brunetti identifies the killer. As he moves to arrest the killer nature intervenes with a legendary storm and chaos ensues. In these stories the mystery takes a back seat to the people and panorama of Venice, but here the denouement holds much more suspense than is usual.

For the first time, I listened to this story rather than read it. I really enjoyed it. The narrator, David Colacci, with a great Italian accent enriched the experience.

I listened to a copy of this novel borrowed from the Free Library of Philadelphia.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer, Houghton, Mifflin Harcourt, April 2005

...I am really looking forward to this movie, I bet it is a wildy better than the book!

This is the story of a young boy who has lost his father in the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center. Oskar Schnell is depressed and deeply traumatized by his loss. After his father’s death, Oskar finds a key that his father had hidden in a vase. He sets off on a mission to find out what the key opens. His travels take him to all five of the NYC boroughs and his quest eventually helps him deal with the loss of his father. A backdrop to the story is his paternal grandparents experience in the firebombing of Dresden during WWII. The grandparents’ story is interspersed through Oskar’s adventures.

I don’t know when I’ve read a book that I’ve had such mixed feeling about. Oskar’s story is very well told. I was moved near to tears at how real his pain and loss is expressed in this story. His voice rings strong, true and heartfelt. The dialogue was perfect for a precocious nine year old, at times witty, at times clever, at times deeply sad. His expression for his grief – “I felt heavy in my boots” – was for me just perfect. His flights of fantasy in creating “Inventions” seem spot on for a bright young boy. It would have been easy to make Oskar’s story descend into cheap sentimentalism but the author doesn’t, he tells it in a way that is sensitive and realistic.

Now for the parts of the book that almost caused me to toss the book across the room. The grandparents story was told in an almost incomprehensible manner – was there no editor involved in this process? The grandparents have lives that have been greatly diminished by their experience in Dresden. Their marriage was a compromise for both of them. Their methods of dealing with their losses and trying to build a life are strange. Even though I found their story unusual I really objected to the way the author told it. Some of the pages contained a single word, some pages were filled with words that did not make sense and some pages were unreadable because the typeset was intentionally blurred. I’ve never read a graphic novel but if this is an example of one you can keep them. I think what I enjoy about reading is the picture the author creates in my mind by using words and the richness and depth of the experience that words bring to the story. None of this was present for me in the grandparents’ story.

I rarely think this but I am really looking forward to this movie,I am sure it will be well edited and  I bet it is a wildly better than the book!

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

Friday, January 6, 2012


11/22/63:A Novel  by Stephen King, Scribner, November 2011

It is part historical fiction, part sci fi, and part love story...rewarding and enjoyable

Nothing appeals to me quite as strongly as a good time travel story and this is a good one! The protagonist is Jake Epply a high school teacher who becomes a time traveler. He always returns to the same date in Maine in 1958. Each trip provides a complete reset, that is any actions Epply took that changed the past in a prior trip are erased. Initially Epply works to prevent some local tragedies in Maine but eventually he decides that preventing the assassination of John Kennedy in Dallas in 1963 will lessen the world’s problems. He sets out to prevent Oswald from killing Kennedy. I really don’t want to reveal too much of the plot here because the suspense is key to enjoyment here.

Let me spend a few words on why I thought this was such a good story. The period detail that the author brings to this story is great, he gets the 1950s early 60s just right, down to the music, the clothes, and the simplicity of the life style. The details of the Kennedy assassination are spot on. The characters are very well drawn and you end up caring about all of the major characters. For me the love story between Epply and Sadie was brilliant, I enjoyed it as well as any other part of the story. I thought the plot was superb, there were enough twists and turns to keep you interested and while the story was a sci fi, I found it believable or at least not outrageous. The decisions that the Jake Epply made were very human not contrived in any way. Lastly, I loved the ending which was clever and heartening.

So if you haven’t read much Stephen King, and I haven’t because I am not a horror genre fan, you should consider this novel. It is part historical fiction, part sci fi, and part love story. It is a big book (800+ pages) but one I found rewarding and enjoyable.

I read a copy of this novel I bought.