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.