Wednesday, June 29, 2011

MERGER by Sanjay Sanghoee

The writing may not be very crisp, but I can forgive that flaw when the plot is as tense as this one. Published before the sub-prime mortgage meltdown, this corporate thriller depicts greedy, slimy CEOs at their worst. The primary villain is Vikram Suri, head of media giant TriNet, which is anxious to acquire Luxor. The author introduces a number of characters at the beginning of the book, so that it is a little difficult to sort out who works for whom and if there are any good guys. Tom Carter is a VP at Morgenthal Winters, the company that is brokering the acquisition. Amanda Fleming is a reporter looking for her first big story. (Why does she smoke? It's so unappealing.) She is also Tom's potential love interest, as he and she, with completely different motivations, team up in an attempt to uncover some fishiness at the bottom of the TriNet/Luxor deal. Amanda has a convenient ex-boyfriend who's an FBI agent, so that now we have all of the necessary elements to solve the crime—an insider, a journalist, and law enforcement. Actually, I should say "crimes," because there's also a murder and a corrupt government official. OK, enough with the cynicism, because I enjoyed this book in spite of myself. Sanghoee obviously knows the world of financial institutions and knows how to withhold, then reveal, critical tidbits to keep us hanging on.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

ALL THE FINEST GIRLS by Alexandra Styron

Alexandra Styron has a new book out about her award-winning father, but I wanted to read her novel instead. As I read it, though, I wondered if how much was truth and how much was fiction. Via intermittent flashbacks, we find that the main character, Addy, now a grown woman, was a wild child whose father was a philosopher/writer and whose mother was an actress/heiress. Neither parent was adept at or interested in parenting, and, if this novel is even faintly autobiographical, it's a scathing indictment of both of them. At the time that Louise arrived from the Caribbean to become Addy's nanny, Addy was the butt of schoolyard jokes about her unkempt appearance and was starved for a little TLC. Fast forward to the present, and Addy arrives on Louise's Caribbean island for Louise's funeral. Here Addy says and does exactly the wrong thing, time and again, managing to offend Louise's bereft family members, just as she had ultimately alienated Louise herself, and thus deepening the funk that she had already sunken into before she arrived on the island. This pilgrimage is sort of a lame and ill-advised attempt on Addy's part to connect with a family with whom she shares virtually nothing. Contrast this cringe-inducing awkwardness with the anger and frustration at her real parents' behavior, and you have a sense of how emotionally damaged Addy is. I suppose her work—restoring paintings—could be construed as therapeutic, but it's rather solitary. She needs a hug, and Louise's two sons, Philip and Derek, whose childhood their mother missed in order to become Addy's caregiver, are not inclined to embrace Addy, physically or emotionally. The irony is that the brothers' lack of mothering is a misfortune that they share with Addy. In order to mend her broken life, Addy will have to ante up some forgiveness, as will Philip and Derek.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

THE NOBODIES ALBUM by Carolyn Parkhurst

Octavia Frost would like to rewrite her past, so she's rewritten the endings to her seven novels instead. Headed to a meeting with her publisher, she finds that her rock star son Milo has been arrested for the murder of his girlfriend, Bettina. (Milo Frost—Do you remember Max Frost from the 60s movie Wild in the Streets? If so, then you'll recognize a few parallels here.) When Milo was 9 years old, his father Mitch and sister Rosemary died in a tragic accident, and he has not spoken to his mother in 4 years. Parkhurst unveils the key to each of these mysteries—how Mitch and Rosemary died and what was Milo's role in their deaths, why Milo and Octavia are estranged, and who killed Bettina. Sprinkled throughout are the jacket copy and final chapters in each of Octavia's novels, along with their revised endings. These interruptions in the main plot are like short stories themselves, are all reflective of the tragedy of her husband's and daughter's deaths, and in some cases are even prophetic. Octavia finds that, while his house is a crime scene, Milo is staying with his middle-aged rocker friend Roland, whose relationship with Bettina is also a mini-mystery. I love this kind of stuff, where the author keeps me devouring each page as she reveals her secrets, one by one. There's even a cryptic note in a sugar bowl that reads, "Someone is lying." All plot devices aside, the heart of the novel is really Milo and Octavia's scarred relationship. His arrest at least gives Milo an excuse to let Octavia back into his life and gives her an opportunity to find out what's going with him, without having to draw conclusions from his song lyrics and wikipedia.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

SACRED HEARTS by Sarah Dunant

In 16th century Italy, families packed their daughters off to a convent if they could not afford a dowry substantial enough for a suitable husband. An angry young woman arrives at the convent in Ferrara, due to such circumstances, as have many others before her. Named Serafina at the convent, she becomes a pawn in the convent political game, as the moderate and self-confident abbess battles the very conservative novice mistress, who would have the convent completely cut off from the outside world in order to serve God more fully. (The two particularly disagree on the significance of various “signs,” including one in which termites cause a surprising interruption of a communion service.) The young novice’s heavenly singing voice is much coveted by the choir, and her recalcitrance renders her a challenging prospect for the convent’s flock. She shows a talent for herbs and pharmacology, as she is initially paired with Suora Zuana, the convent’s dispensary mistress and pseudo-physician. Suora Zuana is uncertain of her own devotion and sees a kindred spirit, or perhaps the daughter she never had, in Serafina. Suora Zuana has come to cherish her cloistered life, as it offers a modicum of independence and career fulfillment, if you will, that she would not enjoy as a wife and mother. Unlike Serafina, who views the convent as a lifelong prison, Suora Zuana is content there in her pursuit of knowledge. In any case, Suora Zuana allows her affection for Serafina to blind her to Serafina’s covert misdeeds and thus jeopardizes her own position as the abbess’s friend and confidante. There are several twists in the story, causing me to utter aloud, “The plot thickens!”

Wednesday, June 1, 2011


What if you were about to break up with your live-in boyfriend, and he died in the 9/11 tragedy? That scenario is the source of complicated emotions for Billy, a petite female playwright who has undermined her relationship with her boyfriend Gus's sister, Leslie, because Billy has never confessed that she was on the verge of breaking up with Gus. Thus, Billy has written a play in which a man's wife is possibly killed in a terrorist attack on a train, the Lake Shore Limited, and the man is semi-relieved that he may not have to tell her that he's leaving her for another woman. The play thus serves as Billy's indirect confession when Leslie sees the play. Leslie, along with her husband Pierce, has brought Sam, a former real estate client, now divorced, to meet Billy and help her recover from her grief. Then Leslie begins to regret having made this introduction, since (a) Billy may not be grieving and (b) Leslie may have a repressed thing for Sam herself. Nonetheless, Billy and Sam make an unlikely and tenuous connection. Sue Miller's characters are always struggling with inner conflict, seeking happiness without knowing exactly how to go about it. She has neither perfect characters nor one-dimensional evil characters. I love that everyone behaves in a very human, though not necessarily predictable way. Sam is my favorite character in this book. While nursing a crush on Leslie, he makes an impulsive drive to her house with the intention of whisking her away from her husband. On the way, though, he witnesses a car crash, and the scene, fully described near the end of the novel, gives us some insight into who he really is. There are so many themes at work here, but the two that stood out to me were the feeling of being unencumbered—by guilt or by a relationship that no longer works—and being receptive to possibilities. I like the word "possibilities"—the author's, not mine—so much better than "hope" or "opportunities," because it conjures up a breaking free of the mold of one's life, perhaps even reinventing one's self. In one chapter, Billy muses on the various endings she envisioned for her play and seems to have settled on the perfect one. These "possibilities" may have mirrored the author's thought processes on how to end this book, and I think she made the right choice also.