Wednesday, December 25, 2013

LIFE AFTER LIFE by Kate Atkinson

This book has Kate Atkinson's signature snappy dialog, but, other than that, it's atypical, although her other books rely heavily on coincidence or serendipity, and there's a bit of that here, too. Certainly, the author points up how the direction of someone's life can hinge on a seemingly inconsequential decision.  Ursula dies over and over, including the day she is born, but gets to relive each life-threatening experience in such a way as to live another day (similar to the movies Groundhog Day, Sliding Doors, and Source Code).  It's unclear as to whether she imagines these various alternatives or actually lives them, but there are so many scenarios, and there's so much movement back and forth in time that it's challenging to keep up.  Ursula was born in 1910 (unless she was strangled by the umbilical cord and never lived at all), and each chapter's title is a date, so that I had to keep calculating her age for the chapter at hand.  Besides the element of confusion, though, the thing that bothered me is that it was difficult to become very attached to Ursula, not only because she kept dying, but also because with all her wildly divergent life segments, I didn't gain a sense of who she really was.  Did she become friends with Eva Braun and Hitler in Munich, or was she helping rescue survivors of the blitzkrieg in London?  The opening pages suggest that she may have even changed the course of history.  With all the permutations and combinations, she has more lives than a cat.  She's sort of a pawn in this constant rewinding, although she has a sense of déjà vu that allows her to steer her life away from events that will result in her death or that of someone else close to her.  I kept wanting to know which sequence of events characterized her real life, but this is fiction, after all, so reality isn't a requirement.  This book is a critics' darling, but I'd still like to have another Jackson Brodie novel from Ms. Atkinson.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013


Controversial books make me a little uneasy, as though I need to hide what I'm reading.  This one is about an adolescent boy, Hayat, growing up in Milwaukee in the 1980s, whose parents are non-practicing Muslims from Pakistan.  His mother's close friend Mina comes to live with the family, fleeing with her son from the oppression of her ex-husband and her family in Pakistan.  Ironically, she begins mentoring Hayat in the Quran, and he eagerly sets out to memorize the entire book without necessarily fully grasping or embracing its meaning.  Hayat's father is a non-believer and provides the counterpoint to Mina and Hayat's devotion to Allah, scoffing at what he considers to be total foolishness.  Mina's engagement to a Jewish colleague of Hayat's father sets off a series a fireworks, including a rash and hateful act on Hayat's part whose tragic consequences will haunt him for the rest of his life.  This book has some striking similarities to John Updike's Terrorist, especially with regard to the power of religion to mold the beliefs of a young person in a radical manner, and in both cases that religion happens to be Islam.  This book, however, is not about violence, although there is some of the domestic sort.  This author populates his novel with devout Muslims, liberal Muslims, and Muslims who bend the Quran to rationalize their hate and prejudices.  Hayat and Mina both examine and reconsider their faith as this very compelling story unfolds.  Their journeys ultimately diverge, and we know from the beginning that Hayat abandons at least some of the strictures of Islam, whereas Mina chooses to remain steadfast to her faith, at the cost of almost everything else that she holds dear.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013


Aaron has just lost his wife Dorothy to a freak accident.  Months after her death, he begins to see her and have conversations with her in which he makes some new discoveries about their lives together.  Is she real or a ghost or just a figment of Aaron's imagination?  In any case, these encounters go a long way toward facilitating Aaron's healing process.  Theirs was not a perfect marriage, but he finds that he can barely function without her and moves in with his pushy sister Nandina, whose love life is just starting to blossom.  I think this is the first Anne Tyler book I've read in which there's an element of the supernatural, but she presents these sightings as remarkable while sticking to her story of an ordinary man.  My favorite thing about this book is how she handles the question of whether other people who knew Dorothy actually witness her reappearance.  Clearly, Aaron thinks that she is visible to others, but he doesn't discuss the phenomenon with the other witnesses, so that he never really gets any validation.  In any case, the author certainly doesn't intend this to be a ghost novel.  Her books strike me as being generally about a lonely person, and Aaron fits the bill.  His home and his life are shattered, and the author allows us to share his grief without forcing us to endure a weepy pity party.

Monday, December 9, 2013


I think this is the third Anne Tyler novel I've read in which a woman becomes disenchanted with her mundane life.  (The other two are Ladder of Years and Back WhenWe Were Grownups.)  Charlotte Emory has decided to leave her husband, but she hadn't planned to do it as the hostage of a bank robber named Jake.  She's not exactly a complicit victim, but neither is she furiously struggling to get away.  Of course, Jake does not seem all that threatening, really, even with a gun poked in Charlotte's side.  As he sees it, he's not really even a criminal; he's just impulsive.  He steals a beat-up car, and then the pair embarks on an unlikely road trip.  One of their first stops is to pick up Mindy, pregnant with Jake's child, and eager to escape a home for unwed mothers.  Next stop is Perch, Florida, to check in with Jake's buddy, Oliver.  This is the point at which Mindy finally discovers that Jake is on the run from the law and that Charlotte is his hostage.  Before I give the impression that Mindy is incredibly dim, let me just say that she has a way of wrapping Jake around her little finger that is pretty impressive.  Here's the thing:  Charlotte is the main character, but she's so passive that she's almost like window dressing—a fly on the wall watching the interaction between Jake and Mindy.  She can't remain as a third wheel to this couple, forever, though, so something's got to give.  I'm not sure what I was expecting, but I wasn't wild about the ending, which diminished my enjoyment of the book just a bit.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

MISTER PIP by Lloyd Jones

Matilda is a 14-year-old living with her mother on a war-torn island near Australia.  (For some unknown reason, I kept imagining this child as a boy, but then the author would jolt me with a reminder of her gender.  Except for a critical scene late in the book, it doesn't really matter.)  Since all the teachers have evacuated, the one lone white man in the village, Mr. Watts, lures all the kids back to the schoolhouse by reading Great Expectations aloud.  Matilda develops a particular affinity for the character Pip, and there is so much talk about this fictional youth that he poses somewhat of a threat, not only to the beliefs of Matilda's mother and others, but ultimately to the lives of everyone in the village.  Matilda is pulled in two directions, torn between love and loyalty toward her mother, and the respect and admiration she has for Mr. Watts, who has introduced her to a world beyond her own.  This dichotomy is not new in literature, but I liked the presentation here.  Both Mr. Watts and Matilda's mother are martyrs to their own causes, and perhaps a bit of practicality would have been useful for both of them.  Matilda faces a moral dilemma and will eventually have to choose her own course, blending the best of both influences.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

THE GATE HOUSE by Nelson DeMille

The Gold Coast is my favorite Nelson DeMille novel.  Therefore, I felt that I owed it to myself to read the sequel.  The length, however, seems a bit self-indulgent on the author's part. I enjoy the witticisms of the narrator, John Sutter, but the play-by-play of his every move is a little much.  In fact, nothing much happens over the course of almost 600 pages.  The late Elmore Leonard refused to review books that were more than 300 pages, and I'm with him on that.  Actually, I can go 350 with no problem, but I digress.  John Sutter has returned after a 10-year hiatus to the estate where he once lived with his wife, Susan.  Susan somehow managed to avoid trial for murdering her lover, Frank Bellarosa, a Mafia don and government witness, 10 years ago.  Now I ask you:  Why would John Sutter reunite with this woman?  She must be really beautiful and really good in bed, but even so, I felt that John was a little hasty in kissing and making up.  Plus, since her very wealthy parents dislike him intensely, they will surely cut off Susan's allowance and her inheritance if John and Susan remarry.  John knows that Susan can't possibly adjust to a more frugal lifestyle, and what if their two adult children lose their trust funds?  John is an attorney, but he's unemployed at the moment, and his past affiliation with the Mafia and a wife who literally got away with murder may have a negative impact on his future opportunities.  This just seemed like so much silliness, especially in contrast to The Gold Coast, which was such a good story about how seductive power can be.  The plot of this book also has a darker angle, in that Bellarosa's son Anthony wants to avenge his father's death.  This means trouble for Susan, who can't quite fathom that anyone would want to kill her.  See what I mean?  She's a little ditsy, and I just couldn't quite buy that John would so easily and quickly forgive and forget.  He lost my respect by doing so.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

THE LIFEBOAT by Charlotte Rogan

Books about lifeboats seem to appeal to me.  I loved Life of Pi and Unbroken, and this novel is no exception.  The story takes place two years after the sinking of the Titanic, when another ocean liner has wrecked in the Atlantic.  Grace finds herself in a crowded lifeboat with 37 other passengers, plus a seaman named Mr. Hardie.  Hardie displays an obvious distaste for the likes of the over-privileged survivors in the boat and takes some snide pleasure in rationing their supplies and directing them in various chores.  He's a distasteful and shady character, but I had some difficulty in classifying him as an outright villain, even as he forbids the others from hauling other survivors out of the water into their already over-crowded lifeboat.  Herein lies the crux of the story:  How far should we go to protect ourselves in a life-and-death situation like this?  Do the usual laws of a civilized society apply, or do the laws of nature, such as survival of the fittest, seem more appropriate?  Or, more accurately, should a few be sacrificed in order to save the majority?  This question becomes more and more pressing as the days stretch into weeks, and the characters become more contentious, aligning themselves with competing factions.  One woman, Mrs. Grant, begins to form alliances with some of the other women, who outnumber the men, and threatens Mr. Hardie's authority.  The whole situation reminded me of William Golding's Lord of the Flies—the mounting desperation as the hope of being rescued diminishes, the uprising, the savagery, and the matter-of-fact manner in which the author describes a climactic, unthinkable action by a group of human beings.  We know from the beginning that Grace faces a court trial after being rescued, but I can't possibly judge these characters.  For what it's worth, the book is not particularly gruesome; it's an adventure that will raise questions in your mind as to what you would have done in Grace's position.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

THE ANTHOLOGIST by Nicholson Baker

I have to admit this book put me to sleep at times.  (On page 205, the narrator accuses the reader of "probably falling asleep."  Guilty as charged.)  Other than that small failing, it's a pretty neat book.  Paul Chowder is a poet who laments the loss of rhyming poetry.  He's compiling an anthology of some of his favorites, called Only Rhyme, but he's stuck on the introduction.  In fact, his procrastination sends his girlfriend Roz packing.  She knows Paul's potential but becomes exasperated with his inertia.  Toward the end of the book, he compares writing poetry to mowing the lawn.  You can start anywhere on the lawn, and you'll finish eventually, but he finds he gets bogged down in his writing, not knowing where to start.  Other than his poetry obsession, Paul's life is pretty pathetic--buying a badminton set but not having anyone to play with, getting excited about a new broom, and observing the habits of a mouse, who wouldn't be a bad pet actually if he didn't leave droppings in the kitchen.  That's about all there is, as far as the plot is concerned, but the book is chock-full of Paul's musings on a variety of both well-known and little-known poets, their work, and their demons.  He brands free verse poets as basically lazy, and that may be a pretty accurate label, given that his own poetry doesn't rhyme.  This book gave me a greater appreciation of poetry, especially of meter and the necessary "rest" at the end of most lines, than any English class.  Paul answers an interesting question at a reading about whether one gets a better appreciation of a poem by reading it silently from the page or by listening to someone read it aloud.  He makes a case for both as distinct experiences.  Listening to a poem allows one to enjoy the rhythm without knowing the length of the poem, while reading it from the page offers a visual appreciation of the stanzas—and the ability to see the enjambments.  I love new vocabulary words.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013


It's the 1920s, and Tom Sherbourne is the new lighthouse keeper for Janus Rock, off the eastern coast of Australiia.  His wife Isabel has just suffered her third miscarriage when a boat runs aground on their island with a dead man aboard and an infant who is very much alive.  She persuades Tom not to report the boat or the body so that they can keep and raise the baby.  Tom, however, is wracked with guilt, and serious trouble ensues when they find out who the baby's parents are.  There are two things that I really did not like about this novel.  First of all, I don't quite buy it when someone like Tom, of unblemished integrity, does something really wrong.  He's not a weak person, but the moment when the baby arrives is his defining moment, and he makes a very stupid choice.  Isabel, on the other hand, is grief-stricken from the loss of three children and sees this baby as her gift from God.  She has obviously become unhinged, and Tom knows this.  OK, she turns out to be a very good mother, but I was very disappointed in Tom's failure to do the right thing in a timely manner.  After a few years have passed, the charade has gone on too long and returning the baby to her biological family is a messy proposition.  The other thing that I did not like about the plot is how it hinges on an unlikely coincidence.  The timing of the baby's arrival, shortly after Isabel's most recent miscarriage, makes the substitution of one baby for another all too easy to pull off.  That said, morbid curiosity drove me to keep reading, and I have to say that I rather liked the ending—not too sour and not too sweet.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

SAN MIGUEL by T.C. Boyle

Two families inhabited the small island of San Miguel, off the coast of Santa Barbara, CA, as sheep ranchers—one in the late 1800's, and one in the 1930s and early 1940s.  They couldn't have been more different.  Marantha Waters suffers from tuberculosis, and her move to the blustery island, at the behest of her tyrannical husband, probably exacerbated the disease.  She and her adopted daughter Edith long for the comforts, amenities, and society of the mainland.  On San Miguel they live in a rustic, rundown house, hundreds of yards away from the privy, and receive supplies and mail via boat once in a blue moon.  Even by the standards of the 1880s, they are roughing it.  Fast forward 50 years, and a few improvements are evident, including an updated house.  Air travel and radio communication are now available also.  The new caretakers are the Lesters--Herbie and Elise--who both delight in the crisp air and solitude.  Imagine, though, raising children there with scant social interaction and no access to formal education.  The Lesters make do, living in isolation with remarkable zest, causing journalists to hype them as the "Swiss Family Lester."  The attack on Pearl Harbor, however, brings their idyll to an abrupt end, replacing contentment with uneasiness, since their island is one of the last stepping stones between Japan and the USA proper.  Plus, Herbie appears to be bipolar, giving the reader a sense of foreboding, as his dark periods become a little more frequent and a little more severe.  This book, though, is about the women, facing unfathomable hardships and managing to keep it together somehow.  Elise Lester doesn't just survive; she thrives.  Let's see:  she does all the cooking and cleaning, raises two children, home-schools them quite successfully, and still finds time for gardening and sewing.  Now that's multitasking.  Based on fact, this book drew me in, but I must say I never envied the characters.

Monday, October 28, 2013

RIVEN ROCK by T.C. Boyle

Eddie O'Kane has a drinking problem and has been known to strike a woman.  His employer, Stanley McCormick, youngest son of Cyrus McCormick, inventor of the reaper, also has a problem with women and hasn't actually seen one in twenty years—not since he attacked a perfect stranger on a train.  This book follows the lives of both men during the course of their association while Stanley is basically incarcerated at a mansion originally built for his sister, who is also mentally ill.  Stanley's behavior runs the gamut from catatonic to unbridled rage.  Over the years, his psychiatric treatment is virtually useless, serving basically as a research instrument for his physicians, until finally a doctor comes along who employs Freud's "talking cure," with mixed results.  Meanwhile, Stanley's long-suffering wife Katherine visits every year but can see Stanley only by clandestinely watching him through binoculars from the mansion grounds.  According to Boyle, she never stops loving Stanley, more for what he could have been than what he actually was, and he was never a husband in the physical sense.  I identified most strongly with Katherine, not only because she's a strong female character, but also because her story is really the most tragic.  However, she doesn't allow her husband's affliction to deter her from finding her own fulfillment through feminist causes such as voting rights and birth control, and fortunately she has the financial resources to pursue these interests.  Boyle never disappoints, and this historical fiction piece is no exception.  At almost 500 pages, though, it requires a bit of a time commitment.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013


I've noticed that other reviewers cut this author a lot of slack for contrived and emotionally manipulative plots, but I'm not that generous.  This book meanders hither and thither, all over the world, back and forth in time, and among characters that are sometimes loosely connected, at best.  There's too much going on here for me.  It's almost as though he didn't have enough material for the primary plot, and so he whisked in a few others.  The main story is that of the separation of two young siblings, which I think is a more heartbreaking storyline than the loss of a child.  Abdullah adores his young sister Pari, but their father allows a wealthy couple in Kabul to adopt Pari so that he can perhaps somehow manage to provide for the rest of his family in a small Afghan village.  The central question then is whether or not brother and sister will ever reunite.  Two of the other story lines involve young girls with medical issues.  Roshi has a cracked skull and gains the sympathy of two cousins, Timur and Idris, both of whom have the means to get her the neurosurgery that she needs.  Idris resents Timur and the flamboyant manner in which he makes known his many good works.  Timur's lack of humility, however, is of no consequence to those he helps; their gratitude is boundless.  I get it:  it's better to perform acts of kindness and brag about it than to do nothing at all.  The other girl is Thalia.  Her plight inspires Markos to abandon photography and pursue a career in plastic surgery, the spoils of which allow him to correct cleft palates in poverty-stricken areas.  The strongest image that I will take away from this book is that of a child horribly disfigured by a dog and whose mother can barely bring herself to look at her.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013


You won't have to spend much time reading this very short novel, but digesting it may take a little longer.  Esperanza is a teenager who doesn't like her name.  This is one of the many things we learn about her, as she acquaints us with her neighbors, mostly women, ashamed, abused, diseased, or locked away--stuck in situations that they can never overcome--in a Latino section of Chicago.  Her family's house is not what she or her parents had yearned for, but it's a step up from the rentals with apathetic landlords that they've endured in the past.  Except for her Papa, the men are not good for much of anything except dance partners.  Mostly, though we learn about Esperanza's hopes, dreams, friendships, and at least one traumatic episode in her life.  She vows not to become a teenaged single mother like some of the girls she knows and tells her story, as well as theirs, in a series of very short narratives.  Although the ending is hopeful, I would have liked a little more laughter or at least some characters that served as role models or positive influences, rather than just examples of what not to do.  Where does Esperanza get her gumption?  I'm still not sure, but at least she has some.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013


Helen Fielding has a new Bridget Jones book coming out, and so I need to get caught up.  Bridget Jones' Diary was refreshing and funny, but this sequel seemed a little tired and silly.  It was too much of a good thing, I guess.  We have a standard plot here:  girl gets boy, girl loses boy, and girl gets boy back.  The "boy" in question is Mark Darcy, no relation to Mr. Darcy of Pride and Prejudice, although both are played by Colin Firth in movies.  Hence, Bridget scores an interview with the real Colin Firth, which seemed superfluous to the plot, but I'm eager to see how the moviemakers handled this encounter.  (Actually, they left it out altogether—smart move.)  Bridget's parents are just as kooky as ever, and Bridget lands in jail in Thailand after inadvertently getting mixed up in a drug smuggling attempt.  Her plight at least opens the door for reconciliation with Mark, ever the hero, when he engineers her release.  Jealousy and insecurity seem to thwart this couple, who seem completely mismatched anyway.  On the other hand, maybe they complete each other, or fill each other's gaps, depending on which movie tagline you want to apply.  She needs his common sense and stability, while he just needs a little levity and adventure, which Bridget provides in spades.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

TELL THE WOLVES I'M HOME by Carol Rifka Brunt

Fourteen-year-old June Elbus's beloved uncle Finn, a renowned artist, has AIDS, and in the 1980s that was a death sentence.  His passing leaves June bereft of her best friend, and now it's tax season, when her CPA parents are too busy to notice.  Toby, Finn's live-in partner, steps in to fill the void as June's new confidant.  Everyone blames him for passing along the HIV virus to Finn, and consequently he's a persona-non-grata at the Elbus house, as if having AIDS hasn't made him enough of a pariah already.  As June gets to know him, she discovers that some of her favorite memories of Finn are more indicative of Toby's influence than of Finn's personality.  Meanwhile, June's older, prettier, smarter, and more talented sister, Greta, seems to be self-destructing, even as she is getting attention from Broadway casting personnel for her upcoming performance in her high school's production of South Pacific.  Greta becomes increasingly more vindictive and condescending toward June, such that at times June cannot decipher whether Greta is being genuinely nice or just setting June up for ridicule and embarrassment.  At the center of the plot is a portrait of the two girls that Finn completed just before his death.  The painting endures some transformations that I found to be somewhat unlikely, from a reality standpoint, and even a little bit appalling, but I think the author has something symbolic going on here that I can't quite fathom.  The two sisters share ownership of the painting, and it brings them together in an odd way, outside of the fact that they're together on the canvas.  There may also be a message here about making your mark and expressing your individuality, even against a backdrop of near perfection; everyone has something to offer.  Fortunately, no one has monkeyed with the perfection of this novel, which I savored from start to finish.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013


This is not a short book, but it's also not a long read.  Of course, if you're not really into it, and I wasn't, it seems like a very long read.  I enjoy humor as much as the next person, but this is more of a farce, and, at the risk of sounding like a heretic, I think farces work better as theatre, or even movies.  Think Shakespeare or Molière, or perhaps Forrest Gump, to whom our 100-year-old man, Allan Karlsson, has been compared by other reviewers.  Certainly the book was better than the movie in that case as well.  Here we have Allan, a Swede who escapes from the old folks' home and has a series of ridiculous adventures in which someone usually gets killed in some absurd manner, such as being squashed by an elephant.  Of course, the victims are usually baddies, but then Allan has stolen a suitcase, so he's not exactly blameless.  Before long, Allan and his merry band of hangers-on, who are not necessarily good citizens either, are on the lam.  Their moral turpitude makes them a target for inept law enforcement officials, who suspect foul play but have no real evidence of criminal activity. Allan and his entourage are equally inept, or they wouldn't be leaving corpses in their wake.  His present-day escapades are interleaved with past experiences, which usually involve a famous historical figure or event.  Does that sound familiar?  This book is not for everybody and certainly not for me.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

THE ROUND HOUSE by Louise Erdrich

Thirteen-year-old Joe lives on a North Dakota reservation, and his world is rocked when his mother, Geraldine, is beaten and raped.  She retreats into depression and silence, exasperating Joe and his father, a tribal judge, since they need for her to identify her assailant.  The attack took place near the ceremonial Round House, but Geraldine does not know the exact location, leading to a jurisdictional quagmire that makes prosecution futile.  Once the attacker's identity is known, Joe starts to take matters into his own hands, to free his family from the fear of further violence.  I enjoyed the first half of this book immensely.  It was suspenseful, and I was able to maintain hope that this family could return to something close to normalcy.  However, the second half I found to be very dark, with an unsettling revelation and yet another tragedy, leaving Joe to sort out his regrets and sorrows.  The reader knows from the get-go that Joe goes on to study law himself, but I would have liked the book not to end as it did.  I don't know if his family is irreparably broken, but one thing I do know:  Joe had to grow up before his time.  There's even a scene near the end where he becomes infuriated at his parents for their innocence in the midst of his own consternation, to the point that he sees them as "the oblivious children" and himself as the perturbed adult.  (I have to see this role reversal as temporary or perhaps even wildly skewed, given the event that follows.)  My biggest beef with this book is that I never really grasped the motive for the attack in the first place.  I know this book is a vehicle for the author to protest the fact that few white rapists of Native American women ever go to trial, but I thought she could have done a better job of setting up the premise for Geraldine having been targeted.

Monday, September 16, 2013

THE BEET QUEEN by Louise Erdrich

Karl and Mary's mother runs off with a stunt pilot in 1929, leaving them to take care of their newborn brother.  Who can resist an opening like this?  A young couple absconds with the baby, and Karl and Mary hop a train to Argus, ND, where their mother's sister lives.  Frightened by a dog in Argus, Karl returns to the train, so that all three siblings grow up separately.  Aunt Fritzie and her husband run a butcher shop, which Mary eventually takes over, since their natural daughter, Sita, is more suited to other pursuits, such as department store modeling.  Karl returns to Argus as an adult and fathers a daughter, nicknamed Dot, with Mary's close friend Celestine.  The author weaves together the stories of all these characters, interleaving their perspectives, into a colorful tapestry of lives that are ordinary and yet compelling.  Celestine and Mary both dote on Dot and compete for the affection of this quite impulsive and unruly child.  Dot is the center of their universe, and ours, too, as she hoodwinks Mary into thinking that her first grade teacher is a tyrant, knocks out another child's tooth, and wreaks havoc on the Christmas play.  Some scenes in the book are hilarious, in a disturbing sort of way, and the author never lets our unfortunate characters get too maudlin.  Except for Sita, the women are all strong, impetuous, and singularly unattractive.  This latter trait doesn't slow them down, though.  Their lives are worthy of our consideration, as we gape at how they respond to various nuisances in a completely unexpected way, with little consideration for the consequences.  After reading this book, you'll be a little leery of Jell-O salads.  Really.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013


Margot and Gwen-Laura are sisters who have both lost their husbands, in a fashion, and are living together in Margot's ritzy apartment.  Gwen's husband, Edwin, died suddenly of a heart defect, and she is reluctant to rejoin the world of dating.  Margot's husband, Charles, is a gynecologist currently serving time for being a personal sperm donor for his patients.  Margot is also broke, thanks to Bernie Madoff, but she still has the penthouse, home not only to her and her sister, but also to a delightful gay young man, Anthony, who has a knack for making cupcakes and multi-tasking.  When Margot's husband is paroled and moves into the same building, reconciliation must be afoot, even though he's anxious to have a rapport with the son produced by one of his office liaisons.  Gwen, the narrator, is everyone's project, as they poke and prod her to get on with her life.  If there's a message here, it's subtle, and I prefer to take this type of novel at face value—just good, clean fun.  No one is completely distasteful, and no one is perfect, either—except perhaps Anthony.  I guess there are two big questions:  Should Margot forgive her husband for multiple acts of adultery, and can Gwen find love without feeling traitorous toward Edwin?  These are serious issues but treated with a light touch here, and I don't object to that at all.  Sometimes the best lessons don't have to be pounded into you with a lot of angst and hand-wringing.

Monday, September 9, 2013

THEN SHE FOUND ME by Elinor Lipman

April Epner's adoptive parents have both passed away, and Bernice Graverman feels that she can now out herself as April's birth mother.  Bernice is a famous TV personality who plunges into April's thirty-something life and then expects her to believe that JFK is her father.  Bernice follows this up with another tall tale, and then a young woman shows up, claiming to be Bernice's real daughter, fathered by Jack Kerouac.  Eventually we, and April, find out the truth.  Meanwhile, April, a Latin teacher, has struck up a friendship with the school librarian, Dwight, who unwittingly finds himself in Bernice's web as well.  The banter among these three is refreshing and witty, keeping the situation from becoming too heavy.  April has these two relationships to explore and hopes to add a third—that of her biological father—to the mix.  In fact, I found April to be just a vehicle to bring the gangly, nerdy Dwight and the over-the-top Bernice together on the page.  Dwight is an ugly duckling with the potential to become April's Prince Charming.  Bernice doesn't quite fit the role of the evil queen or stepmother in this fairy tale, though, because she's not malicious in her meddling machinations at all.  In fact, she's pretty wise—in a wise-ass sort of way.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013


Oprah definitely has a penchant for books about long-suffering, strong women with dissolute husbands, and this is no exception.  On the other hand, Hattie is not your warm-and-fuzzy, nurturing mother.  When she loses her firstborn twins to pneumonia, she embodies tough love as she focuses on making sure her next nine (!) children survive.  Each chapter tells the story of one or more of her tribe:  one who is homosexual, one who was abused, one whose father is not Hattie's husband, one who uses his seizures to conjure up religious fervor, one who is mentally ill, one who has TB and has given up on life, and one who is given away in order to have a better life.  I had the sense that perhaps Hattie lost the ability to love after the deaths of her first two children, especially when she abandons all but one to start a new life with her lover, who may or may not be an improvement over her husband, as either a father or a provider.  I was not particularly fond of the structure, which was similar to OliveKitteridge, in that the chapters felt like loosely connected short stories.  I can handle the occasional flashback, but this novel jumps around in time more than most, and I finally decided just to ignore that aspect of it.  Also, I would have liked a little more closure with regard to the child that Hattie gives to her sister to raise.  Did the child really have a better life?  Did Hattie maintain a relationship with her?  In fact, the author leaves the reader hanging with regard to almost all of the children and their tribulations.  Most chapters are just a snapshot of a person's life at some critical point in time, and I suppose these snippets combine to give us a pretty full portrait of Hattie herself.  Still, she's a little inscrutable, not really loving, and not really lovable.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

THE CUCKOO'S CALLING by Robert Galbraith (aka J.K. Rowling)

This novel is not as magical or as imaginative as a Harry Potter novel, but then what book is?  Cormoran Strike's private detective business is floundering, and he has debts he can't repay, when supermodel Lula Landry's brother John hires him to investigate Lula's death.  The police have ruled her death a suicide, but John is firmly convinced that Lula did not kill herself.  Strike's able assistant is Robin (not to be confused with Batman's assistant), a temp whose fiancé encourages her to find stable employment somewhere else, but she's Watson to Strike's Sherlock Holmes. During the course of his investigation, Strike questions Lula's scumbag boyfriend, her handsome driver, her biological mother, her adoptive mother, her pal from rehab, her neighbors, the building security guard, and her assorted other friends and relatives.  They're mostly a sorry lot with something to hide and questionable alibis.  I love a good whodunit, and this was a fun, breezy read.  However, when Strike flushes out the murderer and recounts the entire sequence of events, I thought that the whole scenario was a little absurd.  Plus, Strike has proved himself to be pretty crafty and wise, with regard to the case, if not to his personal life, but I thought it reckless of him to describe to the murderer how the murder was carried out.  In other words, if you're expecting something gritty and realistic, you'll be disappointed, but if your fiction tastes run more toward the cozy mystery, this could be right down your alley.  Ms. Rowling certainly leaves the door open for more adventures of this dynamic duo and a possible romantic liaison between Strike and Robin.  I'm already hooked.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

THE DOG STARS by Peter Heller

Bangley is a survivor; he has an arsenal and knows how to use it.  Hig has something that Bangley needs, though—the ability to pilot a plane.  In post-apocalyptic Colorado, these two men have an uneasy symbiotic relationship, as they fiercely guard their perimeter surrounding a small airfield against ruthless intruders.  After tragedy strikes Hig, the narrator, he flies off toward Grand Junction, where he picked up a radio transmission from the airport tower three years ago.  He's not exactly sure what his purpose is, but he has only enough fuel to get there; he'll have to fill up somewhere in order to make the return trip.  If you've read Cormac McCarthy's The Road, and Hig obviously has, which I found sort of bizarre, then you know how gut-wrenching this type of novel can be.  I found this one, however, to be refreshingly triumphant and almost upbeat, except for the aforementioned tragedy, and I would classify it as more of an adventure novel.  Each near-calamity brings our two heroes to a fuller understanding and appreciation for one another's skills and viewpoints.  Even when Hig is off on his mission to find other survivors, he imagines what Bangley would advise him to do in each dicey situation.  Much of the text is devoted to Hig's love of flying, which I know nothing about, but the feeling of soaring above the treetops felt uplifting, if you'll pardon the pun.  One of Hig's favorite things about flying is the ability to see the world below in miniature, with all the neat perpendicular roads and rows of houses.  The absence of human life is less obvious from his Cessna, and he can cling to the hope that there are human connections to be made out there somewhere.  Bottom line:  This is the best book I've read in ages.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

BE COOL by Elmore Leonard

This was a somewhat lackluster effort by Mr. Leonard, if you ask me.  Capitalizing on the success of Get Shorty, he brings us another episode in the life of shylock-turned-moviemaker Chili Palmer.  Chili tends to base his movies on real-life events, and that's not a bad thing, since he seems to attract some pretty unsavory and colorful characters.  He wants to do a movie about the record business and gets into the business himself after music mogul Tommy Athens is murdered during their lunch together.  The first (and only) act that Chili comes to produce is Linda Moon, the lead singer for a rockabilly band, who is under contract to another label.  When Chili tells Raji, her manager, that Linda is through with him, Raji becomes the second guy who wants to waste Chili; the first is the Russian whose face Chili got a look at when he shot Tommy.  Raji has a gay Samoan bodyguard, who may not be gay or Samoan, and wants Chili to be left alive to guarantee him a screen test with Chili's latest squeeze, Elaine.  Chili is definitely a cool customer and a likeable, raffish rake, but all of this nonsense can take a book only so far.  I'll admit that Chili and his band of merry men (and women) are mildly entertaining, especially when Chili makes some questionable judgment calls, just to see how things will play out for his movie. 

Monday, August 12, 2013

GET SHORTY by Elmore Leonard

This book was fun but not nearly as much fun as Killshot.  Still, it has its moments.   Chili Palmer, a collector for a loan shark, goes to Vegas to track down a customer, Leo, a drycleaner, who supposedly died in a plane crash.   Leo's luggage was on the plane, but he stayed too long in an airport bar and missed the flight.  Now he's living large on the airline's insurance payout, which really belongs to his estranged wife.  Chili's next stop is Los Angeles, where he hooks up with a B movie director (Harry), an aging actress (Karen), a self-absorbed movie star (Michael), and a trio of drug smugglers fronted by a limo service whom Harry has signed up to back his next picture.  Harry thinks Chili might help him get Michael into his pet movie project, Mr. Lovejoy, but Chili thinks Leo's story has more Hollywood potential.  Several intricate double-crossings make for a pretty entertaining ride, and Chili becomes more and more appealing as the plot thickens.  He's cool and smart and trying not to burn any bridges as he makes his moves toward getting what he wants.  He also has pretty good timing, cultivates some valuable friendships, and knows a setup when he sees one.  You gotta like the guy, trying to go legit and doing some Hollywood schmoozing with a style all his own.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

HALF OF A YELLOW SUN by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

What I remember about Biafra can be summed up in one word:  starvation.  The real story, though, is a lot more complicated.  Three lives unfold in this novel about Nigeria during that turbulent time.  The first is that of Ugwu, a teenager who becomes the houseboy for Odenigbo, a university scholar and idealist.  The second is Odenigbo's girlfriend, Olanna, the daughter of a tribal chief and successful businessman.  Third is Richard, an Englishman who is in love with Olanna's practical but headstrong sister, Kainene.  All except Richard are Igbo people and find themselves fearing for their lives when the Nigerians in power begin to threaten the Igbo with genocide.  War breaks out, and the Igbo secede, forming the country of Biafra.  Optimistic until the end, the Igbo profoundly believe that the war will be short, and Biafra will triumph.  Certainly, the novel describes how the people adapt to an abrupt change in quality of life, but the author doesn't dwell on the hardships.  Ugwu, whose background is more impoverished than that of the others, in some ways has the most difficult adjustment, as he has to stay out of sight to avoid conscription.  The main theme, though, is betrayal, making our characters somewhat of a microcosm of Nigeria itself, with an end result of uneasy peace and unimaginable loss.  I have to admire how Adichie made this piece of history live and breathe, with an inside look at its effect on those who lived through it.  Reading this book was certainly a learning experience, and I absorbed some of the pain emanating from these characters.  I had one major objection, and that was that there's a 4-year gap in which something traumatic happened.  The author repeatedly alludes to these life-altering events, and I kept backtracking to see if I had missed something.  Later in the book she reveals what happened, but I found it very annoying that she kept teasing me with this omitted information.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

LIVE BY NIGHT by Dennis Lehane

This is not my favorite Dennis Lehane novel.  I prefer a little more suspense and a little less gangster-double-crossing.  That said, I did enjoy the book, just not as much as Shutter Island or Mystic River.  Joe Coughlin is the handsome, wayward son of a powerful but corrupt policeman in Boston during Prohibition.  Joe serves time after holding up a card game, in which the players are even bigger crooks than he is.  While in prison he becomes the protégé of Maso Pescatore, who later hires Joe to run his rum distribution operation in Tampa, after Joe completes his prison term.  Joe builds an empire in Tampa and falls in love with a Cuban woman named Graciela, but he's constantly looking over his shoulder.  There are gun battles and heists and whatnot, but I always figured that Joe was wily enough to come out on top, one way or another.  We have to root for Joe, because he has a higher code of ethics, such as it is, than his fellow mobsters, and Joe's refusal to eliminate everyone who stands in his way leads Maso to believe that he's too soft.  Plus, Maso has a son, Digger, that he wants to put in charge of the now-thriving Tampa operation, but Digger is not the sharpest knife in the drawer and inspires neither loyalty nor respect.   There are several side plots:  Joe's first love may or may not have died in a car crash; a fervently religious young woman attempts to thwart Joe's plan to branch into casinos; and Graciela may or may not still be in love with her husband in Cuba.  There was nothing here, though, that kept me on the edge of my seat.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

KILLING WALL STREET by Sanjay Sanghoee

Cathy has an estranged husband and a married lover, who is powerful in more ways than one.  When she tries to end their relationship, he gets violent, and she gets even.  Since her financial situation is deteriorating by the minute, she goes on a rampage to take out a few of his corporate criminal cronies as well.  Meanwhile, FBI agent Michael Sands is trying to piece together the clues from these murders, knowing from an elevator video that the killer is an inept woman in a blonde wig and sunglasses.  Believable?  Maybe not, but I couldn't wait to find out how the author would wrap this up, and I wasn't disappointed.  I have to say that I don't completely approve of a comedy about a serial killer, but sometimes you just have to roll with it and not take things too seriously.  In fact, I rather enjoyed the chatty tone in which Cathy describes how she bumps off each of her victims.  She ultimately makes a name for herself in the social media as the Robin Hood killer, because her victims really are bad guys in the financial world, but her motives are pretty shaky, since she has no idea what dastardly deeds they're really up to.  Michael's investigation, on the other hand, is stymied, even after he's uncovered the link between the victims.  I wanted Cathy to get caught before she could do any more damage, but I never wanted her to have to pay for her crimes.  Is that bad?  She's engaged in a vendetta that's not really that personal, and she likens her situation to that of Thelma and Louise, where one crime mushrooms into a pile of dead bodies.  There are a few twists, one of which was so obvious I'm embarrassed that I didn't pick up on it sooner.  I hate to read a book where the ending feels like the author painted himself into a corner and then had to bluff his way out, but the ending here feels right, whether it was the author's plan from the start or not.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013


I'm not someone who thinks that if I'm going to read trash, it should be well-written trash.  I think that if I'm going to read trash, it should be really trashy. On the plus side, this book is kinky and erotic, and it's part of the pop culture.  On the minus side, it's degrading, chauvinistic, and ridiculous.  So what if the writing is mediocre?  It's still better written than The DaVinci Code, and it's quite the page-turner, in its own appalling way.  So many women in my over-the-hill age group have read this book that I assumed the protagonist to be our age.  Wrong.  The heroine, if you want to call her that, is recent college graduate Anastasia Steele (Ana for short) who loses her virginity to Christian Grey, who seems perfect in every way—rich, smart, sophisticated, and gorgeous.  Christian, however, is interested in submissive women only and expects them to sign a non-disclosure agreement and a pact that basically relegates them to slave status, complete with corporal punishment.  This was a big turnoff for me, but Ana faces the dilemma of deciding how much she is willing to sacrifice to keep from losing him.  The book is not devoid of humor, either; the email exchanges, especially the subject lines, are priceless.  This is the only manner of communication in which Ana can be brutally honest, as Christian just intimidates her too much in person. Christian, on the other hand, divulges as little as possible about his background, but he obviously has survived some very dark times.  The author would have us believe that there's give and take on both sides, as Ana tries to be what Christian thinks he needs, and Christian tries to be more of a normal boyfriend.  What I found most disturbing was that Ana is turned on by Christian's sadistic ways.  She may be good for him, but she can't seem to find her equilibrium in this warped relationship.  She obviously has him wrapped around her little finger, so why put up with all the scary stuff?  Well, because she likes some of it, sort of.  At least I now know what all the fuss is about.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

GILEAD by Marilynne Robinson

John Ames comes from a long line of preachers.  It's the 1950s, and he's now in his seventies, with a young wife and a very young son.  He knows that death is near, and this novel is the text of a letter that he intends for his son to read after he grows up, in order to find out who his father was.  John Ames's first wife died in childbirth, rendering John a very lonely pastor for most of his adult life.  We do get some tales of his father and grandfather, including a long and difficult quest to find the grandfather's grave, but I have to admit that I frequently got confused as to which generation was which.  The crux of the story, though, is that Ames's best friend Broughton named his son for John Ames, and that son, known as Jack, has been an embarrassment and a burden to his family his entire life.  Now Jack is back in town (Gilead, Iowa), and he also seems to be growing a little too cozy with John Ames's wife and child, and this new bond with his family makes John Ames very uncomfortable.  Should he tell his wife about Jack's many transgressions, particularly one that resulted in tragedy?  As it turns out, Jack needs John Ames's advice on a personal matter that he is reluctant to share with his own father, whose health is failing.  The son's current dilemma is completely different from his mistakes of the past, and John Ames has to reevaluate his opinion of this prodigal son whose father has forgiven him time after time.  Jack's current difficulty is one that requires understanding rather than forgiveness.  All in all, the pacing of this book was a little too slow for me, and the content was a little too introspective.  Except for the one essential conflict with Jack, nothing much happens.  I expected there to be some sort of reassessment of faith or perhaps some intrusion of doubt, particularly with the regard to the afterlife, but those types of issues don't come up.  John Ames describes himself as "the good son," and his conscience is clear, as his life draws to a close, but I'd prefer to read about a life that's a little more colorful.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013


The title gives the impression of a confection, but actually it refers to a fictional undercover operation during the 70s in which MI5 secretly funds 10 writers with anti-Communist leanings.  Serena Frome's job at MI5--up until Sweet Tooth comes along--has been basically clerical.  Her favorite pastime—reading fiction—has won her a role in Sweet Tooth, recruiting and mentoring an aspiring novelist named Tom Haley.  They fall in love, but Tom is in the dark about Serena's true occupation and the role of MI5 in sponsoring his work.  These secrets haunt Serena, as she attempts to convince herself that their relationship can thrive without her divulging these unpleasant facts.  The secondary characters actually have the juicier roles.  Serena's former married lover, now deceased, dumped her in a very hurtful manner, for reasons not revealed until later in the book.  Her lower-class friend and co-worker Shirley seems bent on sabotaging Serena's position at MI5.  Then there's Max, Serena's superior at MI5, on whom Serena has a crush before she meets Tom.  Max initially spurns Serena's advances because of his upcoming arranged marriage, but then he does an about-face, which has a disastrous impact on Serena's job and personal life.  In other words, most everyone has some sort of hidden agenda.  Certainly all of this intrigue has its appeal, even if national security is not at stake, but I was particularly entertained by Tom's short stories, which Serena summarizes for us during her vetting of Tom as a candidate for Sweet Tooth.  The one called "Pawnology" is my favorite, as it delivers a surprising and twisty punch.  Also, Serena provides a very enlightening explanation of the Monty Hall probability riddle.  Then Tom builds a story on it but misses a key aspect of the riddle.  Serena's rewrite and million-door analogy make the solution crystal clear.  She may have been a mediocre math student at Cambridge, but she grasps more than we give her credit for.  So does Tom for that matter.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

THE CHAPERONE by Laura Moriarty

Cora Carlisle lives in Wichita, KS, during the 1920s with her handsome attorney husband Alan.  Her twin sons are grown, but still it seems odd that she would volunteer to chaperone Louise Brooks, a beautiful, bratty, manipulative teenaged dance student in New York.  Much to my amazement, Louise Brooks was a real silent film star, and her part of the story is based on fact.  Although a neighbor did accompany Louise on her real-life trip to New York, Cora's story is pure fiction.  As the novel unfolds, we realize that Cora is taking advantage of a golden opportunity to discover her roots, and there's more to her home life than meets the eye.  The trip is a journey of discovery for both women—completely different in age and demeanor but able to glean some pearls of wisdom from one another.  Cora's passage from a prudish, fortyish housewife to a champion of unwed mothers and birth control is perhaps a little too predictable.  The events in between are not so predictable, but neither are they particularly believable, either.  I don't want to divulge too much here, but suffice it to say that her personal life is a complete masquerade, to some degree before the NYC trip but even more so afterwards.  I came to wonder, not only if people were going to find out what was really happening in the Carlisle household, but also whether they might already have their suspicions but respected Cora too much to bring it up.  Her secrets are not the kind that people get away with now, much less back then, when propriety was so much more narrowly defined.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

ONE LAST THING BEFORE I GO by Jonathan Tropper

Both of the Jonathan Tropper books I've read have been about men in crises.  In this one, Drew Silver had his moment in the sun as the drummer of a one-hit-wonder rock band.  Their claim to fame is the song "Rest in Pieces," and now, ironically, Silver has opted to let nature take its course rather than have the surgery required to fix his aorta, which may blow up at any moment.  He's a middle-aged doughboy of a screw-up, feels that he's squandered every chance he's had to make something of his life, and deems himself incapable of making the necessary improvements.  His ex-wife is on the verge of marrying a much better man, but his 18-year-old daughter confides in him that she's newly pregnant.  What really causes chaos, though, since his aortic malfunction, is that he unintentionally verbalizes his every thought, exposing secrets and indiscretions at inappropriate times to unsuspecting listeners.  One could argue that this naked honesty is a good thing, but really, some things are better left unsaid.  I love this author, with his snappy dialog and quirky characters, including the other residents of the Versailles, a sort of long-term hotel for divorced men, where nubile college girls inexplicably come to hang out by the pool.  I didn't say it was realistic.  On the other hand, I can well imagine this guy, who has been a rotten father and husband and has let himself go, as still being undeservedly lovable.  Offering a glimpse of redemption is fellow musician Lori, perhaps equally as lonely and unfulfilled as Silver, who sings and plays the guitar for children at the library.  Some may say that the novel hangs on Silver's decision to have or not have the life-saving surgery that he needs.  I say that the real question is will he or will he not ever get the courage to approach Lori. 

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

WHITE TEETH by Zadie Smith

Is this book a modern classic?  Sometimes the critics and I don't see eye to eye.  The ending to this book almost justified the 500 pages I had to read to get there, but not quite.  Archie Jones routinely makes life-and-death decisions by flipping a coin.  As bad decisions go, though, his are equaled by those of his long-time friend Samad Iqbal.  Samad longs to send his twin sons to Bangladesh so that they can become good Muslims and escape decadent Western influences.  Alas, he can afford to send only one and makes the ill-advised decision to send the studious son Magid, rather than the wayward son Millat.  Naturally, Magid embraces science there, eschewing religion, while Millat joins a fundamentalist Islam group here in the good old U.S.A.  The linchpin, though, is the Chalfen family, who host Millat and Archie's daughter Irie, along with their own son Joshua, in a school-imposed detention that reshapes everyone's lives.  Marcus Chalpen is a genetic researcher whose FutureMouse will prove to the world that genetic engineering can overcome the apparent randomness of fatal diseases.  I don't want to give too much away, but the finale brings together a volatile amalgamation:  Millat's jihad, Archie's mother-in-law and her band of Jehovah's Witnesses, the scientific community, and Joshua's animal rights group.  We can expect sparks to fly, but the surprise lies elsewhere.  The author treats the fragility of life in an interesting way, I must admit.  It literally turns on a dime, and a life saved can make a huge, unforeseen impact.  That impact may be positive or it may be negative or it may just stir the pot—or the plot, in this case.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

HER FEARFUL SYMMETRY by Audrey Niffenegger

Julia and Valentina are 20-year-old identical twins, living in the U.S., when their mother's identical twin Elspeth bequeaths her estate to the girls.  One contingency of the will is that they have to move into their aunt's London flat.  The girls become friends with three inhabitants of the building:  Martin, whose beloved wife has left him because of his severe OCD; Robert, who was Elspeth's lover; and Elspeth's ghost, who is trapped in her old flat.  Robert and the girls communicate with Elspeth via a homemade Ouija board, and Valentina discovers that Elspeth has useful powers beyond just moving lightweight objects around.  This is where the novel becomes, not just dark, but downright macabre.  Valentina is anxious to sever her bond with the overbearing Julia so that she can lead the life she chooses.  To that end, she hatches a plan with Elspeth that is more dicey than the situation warrants.  I know that Valentina is supposed to be very naïve, but we all know that faking your own death has a tendency to backfire in the worst way.  After all, Juliet did the same thing to be with Romeo, and that didn't turn out so well.  In addition to this dying-and-coming-back-to-life parallel, the ghosts, the double sets of twins, and the swapped identities made the plot seem to me to be an attempted mimicking of  Shakespeare that didn't quite work.  I wanted to care about these people, and the only character who aroused my sympathy was Martin, whose unfounded fears are destroying his life and for whom each step toward a sane existence is major victory.  Oh, yeah, mental illness shows up quite a bit in Shakepeare's works, too.