Category Archives: Book Review

The Postmortal – Drew Magary

Recently I finished a great book, The Postmortal by Drew Magary. In this story the wish of never having to grow old and die is granted when a scientist trying to find the genetic code of redheads so that they can have different colored hair, accidentally discovered the death-gene, which is the gene that causes aging. Part of this accident is that he also discovers how to turn off the gene with the help of a bioengineered virus. What happens next is what could happen if people did not have to worry about growing old and dying.

Divorce rates sky rocket with the idea that until death parts us suddenly suddenly seems like too much to ask; teenagers stop thinking about going to college and starting a career with the idea that they have forever and a day to think about it; and people travel to Las Vegas, which of course has created a whole marketing scheme in creating the fountain of youth weekend getaway complete with a holy grail cup from which to drink alcohol.

 

But the reality is that people aren’t built to live forever. Bad memories pile up; boredom settles in as people grow tired of going out with their forever-twenty-some friends every weekend for 40 years; then some people wish for a death that will not find them. As you can imagine there are other problems that come with a world whose population never dies and continues to grow to 20 billion people. Yes, the heros never die, but the villains live forever.

Towards the end of the book I had a sudden reminder of George Orwell’s 1984. Like 1984 and other dystopian novels this book demonstrates how a world built to give everything to everyone ultimately betters the lives of a few while destroying the lives of many.

It is a highly entertaining book and written in a way that works in the generation of the blog looking to the new future with smart phones and battery operated cars. What is also fun is that this is the first dystopian novel that I am away of that takes place in and around Maryland. If this ever comes true I am staying away from Bowie.

If you want to read more about this book click here. Also check out this article written by Magary about which athlete he would wish never retired from old age.

Tells us what your favorite dystopian books are. Any of these top 12?

Happy reading

Nonfiction Paperbacks

The Murder Room: The Heirs of Sherlock Holmes Gather to Solve the World’s MOst Perplexing Cold Cases
Michael Capuzzo

Despite journalist Capuzzo’s obvious reverence for the crime fighters he profiles, his account of the formation of the legendary Vidocq Society is as scattered as many of the cold case files they wade through. Based in Philadelphia, the Vidocq Society was the brainchild of three wildly different men brought together by their desire to speak for the dead: freewheeling exboxer turned forensic sculptor Frank Bender; FBI and U.S. Customs agent William Fleisher; and pre-eminent forensic psychologist and profiler Richard Walter. What began as an informal meeting of colleagues in 1990 evolved into an expansive international think tank of sorts modeled and named after France’s famed criminal-turned-sleuth Eugène Vidocq, a model for Sherlock Holmes. The cases—ranging from Philadelphia’s long-festering “Boy in the Box” murder to the “Butcher of Cleveland,” a serial killer who taunted Elliot Ness in the 1930s—are fascinating, but Capuzzo (Close to Shore) loses much of his narrative momentum by abruptly shifting between the founding members’ individual backstories and homicides the society investigates. Yet there is no denying that the 82 “VSMs”(Vidocq Society Member) do an immeasurable service in the name of justice.

Colonelt Roosevelt: Theodore Roosevelt Goes to War, 1897-1898
H. Paul Jeffers 

The man who likened himself to a “”bull moose,”” says Jeffers in this sturdy second installment (after Commissioner Roosevelt, 1994) of his multivolume popular biography of the 26th president, intended to be elected chief executive in 1904. As it happened, the assassination of William McKinley carried Roosevelt into the White House in 1901. But if Roosevelt’s schedule was off, Jeffers convincingly explains, his aim wasn’t. Roosevelt emerged from the Spanish-American War with the White House right in his sights. Jeffers is most effective in describing Roosevelt’s role in organizing and leading the Rough Riders, but he exaggerates his subject’s role in the origin of the war that made this cavalry division famous. Relying heavily on Roosevelt’s own accounts, he misses the fact that, as Secretary of the Navy, Roosevelt was widely regarded in the McKinley administration as a loose cannon, respected for his energy but not for his ideas. Still, this is a handsome narrative of a crucial period in the career of one of our country’s most colorful politicians.

Everyone Loves You When You Are Dead
Neil Strauss

Journalist Strauss, who has coauthored books with the band members of Mötley Crüe (The Dirt) and porn superstar Jenna Jameson (How to Make Love Like a Porn Star) now offers a terrific look at the dysfunctional livelihoods of stardom, a theme based on his many interviews for various publications. Strauss went back to his original interview tapes and notes in search of moments—mostly unpublished—that reveal “the truth or essence of each person, story, or experience.” He liberally and ingeniously cuts back and forth between scenes, such as pairing the youthful, arrogant claims of Oasis that the band could have been the Beatles in the 1960s with the tortured feeling of the Who’s aging leader Pete Townshend (“All we can do in the future is look back”). In other instances, he shows the self-doubt shared by Soul Asylum’s Dave Pirner and actor Orlando Bloom. But the best moments come when Strauss has earned such trust of his subjects that he becomes part of some very weird scenes, all of which are presented in all their often hilarious detail: shooting guns with Ludacris, getting kidnapped by Courtney Love, making Lady Gaga cry, and shopping for Pampers with Snoop Dogg.

The Hare with Amber Eyes
Edmund de Waal

In this family history, de Waal, a potter and curator of ceramics at the Victoria & Albert Museum, describes the experiences of his family, the Ephrussis, during the turmoil of the 20th century. Grain merchants in Odessa, various family members migrated to Vienna and Paris, becoming successful bankers. Secular Jews, they sought assimilation in a period of virulent anti-Semitism. In Paris, Charles Ephrussi purchased a large collection of Japanese netsuke, tiny hand-carved figures including a hare with amber eyes. The collection passed to Viktor Ephrussi in Vienna and became the family’s greatest legacy. Loyal citizens of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Vienna Ephrussis were devastated by the outcome of WWI and were later driven from their home by the imposition of Nazi rule over Austria. After WWII, they discovered that their maid, Anna, had preserved the netsuke collection, which Ignace Ephrussi inherited, and he settled in postwar Japan. Today, the netsuke reside with de Waal (descended from the family’s Vienna branch) and serve as the embodiment of his family history. A somewhat rambling narrative with special appeal to art historians, this account is nonetheless rich in drama and valuable anecdote. 20 b&w illus.

Loon: A Marine Story
Jack McLean

McLean’s debut is a perceptive memoir of the Vietnam war that is unique for the author’s background: McLean joined the Marine Corps after graduating from Phillips Academy, where George W. Bush was a classmate. Making excellent use of more than a hundred letters he wrote home from the war zone from November 1967 to July 1968, McLean reconstructs his time in the Marines with a sharp eye for detail and very readable—at times almost poetic—prose. McLean underwent a hellish tour of duty and in the fall of 1968 became the first Vietnam veteran to enter Harvard. He uses a good deal of reconstructed dialogue to tell his war story, a technique that in lesser hands only cheapens a memoir. But virtually all of McLean’s dialogue rings true, as does nearly everything else in the book. That includes this passage in which McLean remembers his baptism under fire a few days after he arrived in Vietnam: “It had been eerie, frightening, invigorating, chaotic, and surreal. Welcome to combat. It was not like the movies.”

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration
Isabel Wilkerson

Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, a sharecropper’s wife, left Mississippi for Milwaukee in 1937, after her cousin was falsely accused of stealing a white man’s turkeys and was almost beaten to death. In 1945, George Swanson Starling, a citrus picker, fled Florida for Harlem after learning of the grove owners’ plans to give him a “necktie party” (a lynching). Robert Joseph Pershing Foster made his trek from Louisiana to California in 1953, embittered by “the absurdity that he was doing surgery for the United States Army and couldn’t operate in his own home town.” Anchored to these three stories is Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Wilkerson’s magnificent, extensively researched study of the “great migration,” the exodus of six million black Southerners out of the terror of Jim Crow to an “uncertain existence” in the North and Midwest. Wilkerson deftly incorporates sociological and historical studies into the novelistic narratives of Gladney, Starling, and Pershing settling in new lands, building anew, and often finding that they have not left racism behind. The drama, poignancy, and romance of a classic immigrant saga pervade this book, hold the reader in its grasp, and resonate long after the reading is done.


 

Paperback Fiction

Recently in the world of new paperbacks . . .

The Doctor and the Diva
by: Adrienne McDonnell

In her book-club friendly debut, McDonnell weaves the intriguing tale of an early 20th-century opera singer torn between her career and motherhood. Erika von Kessler, a mezzo-soprano of some regard, and her husband, Peter Myrick, have been trying without success to conceive a child for all six years of their marriage. They seek out the expertise of Dr. Ravell, a Boston obstetrician renowned for his fertility successes. Ravell, mesmerized by Erika’s beauty and talent, vows to do anything to help the couple realize their dream of children, even if it means deceiving them, which, of course, it does. Meanwhile, Erika isn’t so sure about her desire for motherhood and secretly makes plans to leave her husband and pursue fame in Italy. McDonnell bases the story on her family history and expertly incorporates surprising facts about the history of fertility research into a twisting tale of miscommunication, love, and unrealized dreams.

Girl in Translation
Jean Kwok

A resolute yet naïve Chinese girl confronts poverty and culture shock with equal zeal when she and her mother immigrate to Brooklyn in Kwok’s affecting coming-of-age debut. Ah-Kim Chang, or Kimberly as she is known in the U.S., had been a promising student in Hong Kong when her father died. Now she and her mother are indebted to Kimberly’s Aunt Paula, who funded their trip from Hong Kong, so they dutifully work for her in a Chinatown clothing factory where they earn barely enough to keep them alive. Despite this, and living in a condemned apartment that is without heat and full of roaches, Kimberly excels at school, perfects her English, and is eventually admitted to an elite, private high school. An obvious outsider, without money for new clothes or undergarments, she deals with added social pressures, only to be comforted by an understanding best friend, Annette, who lends her makeup and hands out American advice. A love interest at the factory leads to a surprising plot line, but it is the portrayal of Kimberly’s relationship with her mother that makes this more than just another immigrant story.

The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey
Walter Mosley

Mosley (Known to Evil) plays out an intriguing premise in his powerful latest: a man is given a second shot at life, but at the price of a hastened death. Ptolemy Grey is a 91-year-old man, suffering from dementia and living as a recluse in his Los Angeles apartment. With one foot in the past and the other in the grave, Ptolemy begins to open up when Robyn Small, a 17-year-old family friend, appears and helps clean up his apartment and straighten out his life. A reinvigorated Ptolemy volunteers for an experimental medical program that will restore his mind, but at hazardous cost: he won’t live to see 92. With the clock ticking, Ptolemy uses his rejuvenated mental abilities to delve into the mystery of the recent drive-by shooting death of his great-nephew, Reggie, and to render justice the only way he knows how, goaded and guided by the memory of his murdered childhood mentor, Coydog McCann. Though the details of the experimental procedure are less than convincing, Mosley’s depiction of the indignities of old age is heartbreaking, and Ptolemy’s grace and decency make for a wonderful character and a moving novel.

The Taste of Salt
Martha Southgate

In her haunting fourth novel, Southgate (Third Girl from the Left) examines the complicated issues of race, family, love, and addiction. Josie Henderson is a widely respected scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts and prides herself on being the only senior-level African-American marine biologist there. Henderson loves her job and has a husband, Daniel, who adores her, but she can’t shake her past of growing up with an alcoholic father. The story spins out, told through Josie’s eyes and those of her brother, Tick, father, mother and husband after Josie goes back to her hometown of Cleveland to pick Tick up from his second stint in rehab. Southgate’s arresting, fluid prose and authentic dialogue come together in a resonating study of relationships, where selfish tendencies among the various characters are revealed, as are their feelings of regret. A fascinating story that shows how the mistakes people make affect all those around them.

The Strangers on Montagu Street
Karen White

White’s third Tradd Street paranormal (after 2009’s The Girl on Legare Street) delivers powerful emotions, weird old Charleston architecture, and a hint of mystery as psychic realtor Melanie Middleton and her boyfriend, bestselling author Jack Trenholm, navigate their treacherous relationship. Nola, Jack’s 13-year-old daughter, adds an extra challenge by arriving on his doorstep from California after her drug-addicted songwriter mother’s suicide, with her mother’s guitar in hand and her mother’s comforting but restless spirit in tow. When sullen Nola becomes haunted by evil spirits living in a beautiful antique dollhouse that Jack’s mother gives her, tracking down the story of the house on which the miniature home is modeled becomes a priority. Charming and complex living characters, combined with unsettled ghosts that balance uncanny creepiness with very human motivations, keep this story warm, real, and exciting.

Whiter Than Snow
Sandra Dallas

In this stilted, disjointed smalltown disaster drama, a 1920 Colorado avalanche traps nine children in a snow drift, turning their close-knit community upside-down in the process. As the children’s families learn of their predicament, the complicated backstories that bind the members of sleepy Swandyke come to light; in the present, the developing tragedy, including multiple deaths, transforms the community through sorrow, forgiveness, and redemption. Unfortunately, novelist Dallas (Prayers for Sale ) isn’t up to the challenge of multiple plot threads, a large cast of characters, or the heavily loaded children-in-distress material; exaggerated caricature, stiff dialogue, and poorly integrated character history make for awkward, disappointing melodrama.

New in Nonfiction

Here is what is new in Nonfiction at the bookstore.

In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin
by Erik Larson 

In this mesmerizing portrait of the Nazi capital, Larson plumbs a far more diabolical urban cauldron than in his bestselling The Devil in the White City. He surveys Berlin, circa 1933–1934, from the perspective of two American naïfs: Roosevelt’s ambassador to Germany, William Dodd, an academic historian and Jeffersonian liberal who hoped Nazism would de-fang itself (he urged Hitler to adopt America’s milder conventions of anti-Jewish discrimination), and Dodd’s daughter Martha, a sexual free spirit who loved Nazism’s vigor and ebullience. At first dazzled by the glamorous world of the Nazi ruling elite, they soon started noticing signs of its true nature: the beatings meted out to Americans who failed to salute passing storm troopers; the oppressive surveillance; the incessant propaganda; the intimidation and persecution of friends; the fanaticism lurking beneath the surface charm of its officialdom. Although the narrative sometimes bogs down in Dodd’s wranglings with the State Department and Martha’s soap opera, Larson offers a vivid, atmospheric panorama of the Third Reich and its leaders, including murderous Nazi factional infighting, through the accretion of small crimes and petty thuggery.

Jack Kennedey: Elusive Hero
by Chris Matthews

Out of his gut interest in politics and love of reading biographies of American heroes, Matthews, host of MSNBC’s Hardball, probes the details of the 35th president’s life and career to find out what Jack was like. He begins this book wanting to discover how Kennedy became the leader who, at a moment of national fear and anger (the Cuban missile crisis), could cut so coldly and clearly to the truth. Drawing on interviews with friends and former staffers, as well as on such familiar biographical incidents as Kennedy’s rescue of the PT-109 crew and his resulting back injury, Matthews reveals a man who through inner direction and tenacious will created himself out of the loneliness and illness of his youth and who taught himself the hard discipline of politics through his own triumphs and failures. For example, from the Bay of Pigs—considered one of Kennedy’s failures—JFK learned that there must be both clarity and completion when the stakes are highest and most desperate; know your enemy and your goal; and hold fast to what you’re attempting. With this resolve, Kennedy reacted to Khrushchev during the Cuban missile crisis with a detachment that resisted the easy path of war that others recommended. Matthews’s stirring biography reveals Kennedy as a “fighting prince never free from pain, never far from trouble, and never accepting the world he found.”

The Death of King Arthur: Thomas Malory’s The Immortal Legend
A Retelling by Peter Ackroyd

Having successfully reworked Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales for modern audiences, British editor, novelist, and critic Ackroyd (Dickens: Public Life and Private Passion) turns his talents to Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, transforming the 15th-century compilation of Arthurian medieval romances into an eminently readable narrative. Rather than precisely translating Malory’s Middle English, Ackroyd renders the original’s tone and spirit in modern prose. Readers will recognize Arthur and Galahad, Lancelot and Guinevere, Tristram and Isolde, Merlin, Mordred, and Morgan LeFay, the Sword in the Stone and the Lady of the Lake—portrayed with all their pride, self-doubt, flaws, and frustrations. We see knights caught in a medieval catch-22, trying to abide by a code of chivalry that was difficult even in that era. Their adventures produce enough dastardly villains, doomed loves, magic spells, and heroic deeds to equal the most imaginative contemporary fiction, while relations between the knights and the ladies they rescue, ravish, revere, revenge, or reject yield a surprising range of emotions and complications. Though scholars might prefer a more exact version of Malory’s work, most readers will welcome Ackroyd’s straightforward storytelling and this celebration of Britain’s literary and cultural tradition.

Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman
by Robert K. Massie

The Pulitzer-winning biographer of Nicholas and Alexandra and of Peter the Great, Massie now relates the life of a minor German princess, Sophia of Anhalt-Zerbst, who became Empress Catherine II of Russia (1729–1796). She was related through her ambitious mother to notable European royalty; her husband-to-be, the Russian grand duke Peter, was the only living grandson of Peter the Great. As Massie relates, during her disastrous marriage to Peter, Catherine bore three children by three different lovers, and she and Peter were controlled by Peter’s all-powerful aunt, Empress Elizabeth, who took physical possession of Catherine’s firstborn, Paul. Six months into her husband’s incompetent reign as Peter III, Catherine, 33, who had always believed herself superior to her husband, dethroned him, but probably did not plan his subsequent murder, though, Massie writes, a shadow of suspicion hung over her. Confident, cultured, and witty, Catherine avoided excesses of personal power and ruled as a benevolent despot. Magnifying the towering achievements of Peter the Great, she imported European culture into Russia, from philosophy to medicine, education, architecture, and art. Effectively utilizing Catherine’s own memoirs, Massie once again delivers a masterful, intimate, and tantalizing portrait of a majestic monarch.

New Fiction this Holiday

The massive new novel from international sensation Murakami (What I Talk About When I Talk About Running) sold out in his native Japan, where it was released in three volumes, and is bound to provoke a similar reaction in America, where rabid fans are unlikely to be deterred by its near thousand-page bulk. Nor should they be; Murakami’s trademark plainspoken oddness is on full display in this story of lapsed childhood friends Aomame and Tengo, now lonely adults in 1984 Tokyo, whose destinies may be curiously intertwined. Aomame is a beautiful assassin working exclusively for a wealthy dowager who targets abusive men. Meanwhile Tengo, an unpublished writer and mathematics instructor at a cram school, accepts an offer to write a novel called Air Chrysalis based on a competition entry written by an enigmatic 17-year-old named Fuka-Eri. Fuka-Eri proves to be dangerously connected to the infamous Sakigake cult, whose agents are engaged in a bloody game of cat-and-mouse with Aomame. Even stranger is that two moons have appeared over Tokyo, the dawning of a parallel time line known as 1Q84 controlled by the all-powerful Little People. The condensing of three volumes into a single tome makes for some careless repetition, and casual readers may feel that what actually occurs doesn’t warrant such length. But Murakami’s fans know that his focus has always been on the quiet strangeness of life, the hidden connections between perfect strangers, and the power of the non sequitur to reveal the associative strands that weave our modern world. 1Q84 goes further than any Murakami novel so far, and perhaps further than any novel before it, toward exposing the delicacy of the membranes that separate love from chance encounters, the kind from the wicked, and reality from what people living in the pent-up modern world dream about when they go to sleep under an alien moon.

Click here for another review.

MWA Grand Master Grafton’s finely tuned 22nd Kinsey Millhone novel (after 2009’s U Is for Undertow) finds the sharp-witted California PI filled with remorse after the apparent suicide of Audrey Vance, a woman she helped arrest for shoplifting. When Audrey’s perplexed fiancé, Marvin Striker, hires Kinsey to further investigate her death, Kinsey’s astute and relentless prying opens a Pandora’s box. Was Audrey tied to major crime lords? Are these racketeers linked to corrupt cops? Kinsey’s prickly personality and tart tongue antagonize just about everyone, including Marvin, several loan sharks, a stone-cold killer, and a hapless burglar who knows more than is healthy for him. For good measure, Kinsey gets punched in the face on her 38th birthday. An engrossing subplot involves an illicit love affair that neatly dovetails into the main story. This being 1988, Kinsey relies on her Rolodex, file cards, and land line, but her intuition is her chief asset. Readers will wish her well on her feisty and independent way to the end of the alphabet. Author tour.

 

Wry humor, a fully realized lead, and tense atmospherics lift Sandford’s suspenseful fifth novel featuring Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension agent Virgil Flowers (after Edgar-winner Bad Blood). When a bomb kills a construction superintendent in Butternut Falls, a small community divided over the imminent arrival of a PyeMart megastore, Virgil gets on the case, even though it’s his day off. Three weeks earlier, a bomb exploded at PyeMart’s Michigan headquarters shortly before a board meeting. Willard Pye, the company head, was unharmed, but his executive assistant was blown to pieces. Given the number of locals hostile to the company, Virgil has no shortage of possible suspects, and the ante rises as more bombs are detonated. Coupling a thoroughly modern investigative approach with old-fashioned logical deduction, Virgil narrows in on his target. Sandford effortlessly conjures up the rhythms and personalities of a small town in one of his best outings to date.

 

Bestseller Bohjalian’s latest novel (after Secrets of Eden) is a gripping paranormal thriller set in a remote New England town. Airline pilot Chip Linton is beset by survivor’s guilt after crashing his plane upon takeoff, killing all but nine aboard. His family moves to Bethel, N.H., to escape the media glare while Chip recovers from PTSD, but they soon discover that the sleepy village harbors evil things. Their new home, once the site of a young boy’s suicide, contains mysterious passageways, hidden weapons, and a secret crypt. And their neighbors, New Age gardeners and homeopaths, soon reveal themselves to be occultists with designs on the Lintons’ twins. Chip begins receiving visits from his dead passengers, including an eight-year-old and her bloodthirsty father, who demands Chip find her a friend—at any cost. Meticulous research and keen attention to detail give depth and character to Bohjalian’s eerie world, but the spookiness consistently gives way to silliness, and the Lintons’ typical response to the strange goings on, an uneasy mix of suspicion and credulity, is a problem. Still, Bohjalian is a master,, and the slow-mounting dread makes this a frightful ride.

I cannot wait to read this next book.

The hype surrounding what’s being billed as the first pastiche ever officially approved by the Conan Doyle estate is amply justified in this authentic, if melancholy, recreation of the beloved Baker Street characters by the creator of the acclaimed Foyle’s War TV series. A year after Sherlock Holmes’s death (from natural causes), Watson takes up his pen one last time to recount a case they shared in 1890 that was “too monstrous, too shocking” to appear in print. The opening is prosaic enough. London art dealer Edmund Carstairs asks for the detective’s help after a shadowy figure in a flat cap, apparently an Irish-American thug bent on revenge, surfaces near Carstairs’s Wimbledon home. When a murder follows Holmes getting involved, the trail leads him and the good doctor to a powerful secret society known as the House of Silk. Horowitz gets everything right–the familiar narrative voice, brilliant deductions, a very active role for Watson, and a perplexing and disturbing series of puzzles to unravel–and the legion of fans of the originals will surely be begging for Horowitz to again dip into Watson’s trove of untold tales. Author tour.

In Rendell’s fine follow-up to A Sight for Sore Eyes (1999), a non-Wexford novel in which a working-class aesthete’s quest for beauty earned him an ugly, unexpected end, horror strikes the home improvement plans of Martin and Anne Rokeby. The couple are seriously disconcerted to discover multiple bodies in varying states of decay in a long-forgotten vault beneath their London garden. In the art world, the Rokebys’ address is famous as the setting of a ’70s-era masterpiece, Marc and Harriet in Orcadia Place, a painting depicting a rock star and his girlfriend. Though Inspector Wexford has retired, the police soon summon him to help solve this most gothic case. Has more than one killer used the vault as a body dump? Rendell’s recent style can feel a bit anemic when contrasted with that of A Sight for Sore Eyes, and she populates this sequel with people who resemble sketches rather than vivid, complex characters. Still, this easily outshines most of the competition on either side of the Atlantic.

What’s New in Nonfiction

Every now and then I love a good nonfiction read and here is what caught my eye recently.

“[E]veryone finds their own version of Charles Dickens [1812–1870],” concludes award-winning British biographer Tomalin: Dickens the mesmerist, amateur thespian, political radical, protector of prostitutes, benefactor of orphans, restless walker—all emerge from the welter of information about the writer’s domestic arrangements, business dealings, childhood experiences, illnesses, and travels. Bolstered by citations from correspondence with and about Dickens, Tomalin’s portrait brings shadows and depth to the great Victorian novelist’s complex personality. Tomalin (Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self) displays her deep scholarship in reviewing, for instance, the debate about Dickens’s relations with Nelly Ternan, concluding that the balance of evidence is that they were lovers. She also highlights the contrasts between his charitable actions toward strangers and his “casting off” of several relatives from father to brothers to sons, who kept importuning him for money: “Once Dickens had drawn a line he was pitiless.” By the end of this biography, readers unfamiliar with Dickens will come away with a new understanding of his driven personality and his impact on literature and 19th-century political and social issues. Tomalin provides her usual rich, penetrating portrait; one can say of her book what she says of Dickens’s picture of 19th -century England: it’s “crackling, full of truth and life, with his laughter, horror and indignation.” Illus.; maps.

 

Much of Iran’s relationship with the West—and their mutual antipathy—stems from the muddled events of a single day: November 4, 1979, when Iranian militants overran the U.S. embassy in Tehran, launching a 444-day-long hostage drama. What’s often forgotten is that six Americans evaded their would-be captors and were protected and eventually extracted from Iran by Canadian diplomats. In this fascinating account of spycraft and compassion, Wright (Three Nights in Havana) puts newly unclassified documents to excellent use in recounting how Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor hid the Americans who had slipped out a side door and gathered intelligence for the U.S. government. Wright sketches the historic grievances that lay at the heart of the embassy takeover and dispels lingering myths—among them, that the occupiers were “idealistic student amateurs”—crafting an absorbing story of genuine heroism and suspense.

 

Known as the “Corrupting Sea” for the way the dense web of commercial relationships spanning its shores inexorably changes local cultures, the Mediterranean has seen the rise and fall of many of the world’s great empires, aided in the spread and propagation of the three great monotheistic faiths, and carried countless millions of immigrants and adventurers to a new life or a watery grave. This epic tome by Abulafia, a professor of Mediterranean history at Cambridge, is a political history of the Liquid Continent–another of the sea’s monikers–tracing how the spread of ideas, goods, cultures, and armies across the sea has helped shape the modern world. Engagingly written, precisely documented, and liberally studded with tales of the fantastic and absurd, the book has much to offer the casual reader and is indispensible for specialists in the region. In such an expansive work, however, occasional frustration regarding the rapidly changing cast of thousands is inevitable, and nearly every page contains minor details deserving their own entire books. Abulafia’s central thesis, that human cultures shape their own destinies rather than live beholden to the currents, climate patterns, and natural ecosystems described by Fernand Braudel, the other great chronicler of the Mediterranean, is convincing. Maps.

Let us know what you think.

Happy Reading

Ron Rash

Today I began reading One Foot in Eden by Ron Rash, and it is a great story. It is Rash’s first novel, which was published in 2002. Rash is known for his poetry and short stories, but he is a very talented novelist. He was born in 1953 in South Carolina.

The first Ron Rash story I read was The World Made Straight, It is also a great read. Rash’s stories read like poetry with beautiful descriptions of some not so beautiful places and some not so lovely people. But his characters extremely engaging in their flaws and memorable in their disposition.

For more about this book click here. Also check out the video below.

Happy Reading

 

The Night Circus

Just before Halloween, I listened to a podcast of an episode of the Diane Rehm. On the show an author named Erin Morgenstern was talking about her first published book, The Night Circus. For me, whenever I hear the words ‘night’ or ‘circus’ my ears prick up to engage my interest.

It was a great interview, which you can listen to here, and so far it is a great book. The story is very different in both the tale and how it is written. It is, for lack of a better term, full of magic and wonder. For anyone who has enjoyed reading books like Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell; Something Wicked This Way Comes; or The Graveyard Book, this is a book for you.

It is a young adult book, but it is one that adults can also enjoy, same as the stories mentioned above.

For more on this book here is an article from the Washington Post and one from the New York Times.

And if you are like me and want to read the book before watching the film, this book will soon be a movie. More about that here.

Happy Reading,

ORB

The Fang and the Endeavor

A while ago I posted an article about some new and exciting books that I learned about at the New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association (NAIBA). Article here. This is what I thought of two of the books.

The Family Fang; by Kevin Wilson

 

This book was different, in a great and touching way. The story of a strange family of artists and the two children, Annie and Buster, who rebel against their parents and their parents strange art. This strange art is a more artistic version of what you might see on the shows, and movies, of the group known as Jackass. (Bare with me.) But, instead of having a thirty-year old man dress up as a ninety-year old man and pretend to give his pretend grandson liquor in public and recording how bystanders react; the parents, Caleb and Camille, have fake marriage proposals on airplane flights and hand out fake couples for a free chicken sandwich. They believe that real art is in the reaction of the people whom have no clue as to what is going on. Some of it is funny, and some of it is painful. But how does this weird art affect a family and the children who end up in the art a Child A and Child B? What happens with the children when they grow up and suddenly their parents disappear? Is it an act?

The story is very clever and well written. The characters are fun as well as deeply flawed. I would recommend this story to anyone who likes a good embarrassing laugh.

 

This Dark Endeavor; by Kenneth Oppel

I love Frankenstein and this book did not disappoint. Like the book Finn by Jon Clinch, I felt that this book not only stayed loyal to the original story, but it added to the world of the original. Victor Frankenstein is a strange man and though I never thought about it before, when I first heard about this book I did wonder about what kind of childhood a person like that would have.

It was an itched that needed scratching and Oppel made a great story that is fun for many ages or readers. Yes, it is a young adult novel, but it is fun to read as an adult who can see the hints of what is to come in the future of the tragic boy’s life.

What makes the book fun with interest is the balance of magic and science, the very balance that Frankenstein tries to walks and untilamtely fails.

Happy Reading

 

 

 

New in Fiction

I love looking at new books and here is what is new and interesting at the bookstore.

The Sense of an Ending; by Julian Barnes
In Barnes’s (Flaubert’s Parrot) latest, winner of the 2011 Man-Booker Prize, protagonist Tony Webster has lived an average life with an unremarkable career, a quiet divorce, and a calm middle age. Now in his mid-60s, his retirement is thrown into confusion when he’s bequeathed a journal that belonged to his brilliant school-friend, Adrian, who committed suicide 40 years earlier at age 22. Though he thought he understood the events of his youth, he’s forced to radically revise what he thought he knew about Adrian, his bitter parting with his mysterious first lover Veronica, and reflect on how he let life pass him by safely and predictably. Barnes’s spare and luminous prose splendidly evokes the sense of a life whose meaning (or meaninglessness) is inevitably defined by “the sense of an ending” which only death provides. Despite its focus on the blindness of youth and the passage of time, Barnes’s book is entirely unpretentious. From the haunting images of its first pages to the surprising and wrenching finale, the novel carries readers with sensitivity and wisdom through the agony of lost time.
Review

The Most Dangerous Thing; by Laura Lippman (Maryland Writer)
Childhood friends, long since splintered off, uneasily reunite after the death of one of their own in Edgar-winner Lippman’s superbly unsettling tale of the consequences of long-buried secrets. Gordon “Go-Go” Halloran drives his car into a wall after a night of drinking, even though he’s been on the road to sobriety. On the brink of divorce, Gwen Robison returns home to care for her aging father and learns of Go-Go’s death from his older brother, Sean. With the eldest Halloran brother, Tim, and a scruffy, nature-loving neighborhood girl, Mickey Wickham, the five had come together in the spring of 1977. The group broke apart after a violent encounter in the woods, an event that was never spoken of again, but permeates each of their lives. Lippman (I’d Know You Anywhere) cleanly shifts between the past, following the band of kids through their adventures in the woods of their Baltimore suburb, and the present when Go-Go’s death draws them back together. Her series lead, Tess Monaghan, makes a brief appearance, but this stand-alone belongs to the children, their memories, and everything dangerous that lives in the woods.
Review

Crossbones; by Nuruddin Farah (Who actually visited Washington College four years ago as part of the PEN World Voices.)
Somali-born Farah (Knots) completes his Past Imperfect trilogy with an insightful portrait of his African country imploding so furiously that neither well-educated citizens nor well-meaning exiles who return can alter the trajectory. Farah’s novel centers on the visit to Mogadiscio of Jeebleh, a Somali-born Minnesota literature professor traveling with his journalist son-in-law, Malik. Ahl, Malik’s older brother, comes too, fearing he’ll find his runaway stepson in a region known for youthful pirates. Giving a human dimension to the tragedy of a failed nation-state, Farah interweaves points of view, the most chilling being that of a boy called YoungThing sent on a murderous mission by the Shabaab, one of several political-religious factions jockeying for control. Though YoungThing gets lost along the way, he doggedly persists, determined to complete his mission. Layer by layer, the novel digs into its sad subject as Malik conducts interviews, Ahl hunts rumors, and Jeebleh reconnects with old friends. Farah has become the voice of the Somalian diaspora, telling stories of political, religious, and family conflict without sentimentality. He sheds light on current events, but is a portraitist, not a polemicist. He shows independent women and well-meaning Americans caught in Somalia’s implacable cycle of tyranny, destruction, and revenge. Like Conrad, Farah proves a master of his adopted language, enhancing his narratives with proverbs and instances of institutionalized irrationality.
Review and interview on NPR

Happy Reading

 

The Invention of Hugh Cabret

Several weeks ago while ordering a book from my local library I met a good friend of mine who asked me what I had been reading lately. It was such a natural question and conversation for a library. Though I forget what my answer to him was I do remember this. He asked me if I had ever read a book titled The Invention of Hugo Cabret. (Hint for the link, you do not need a key.) I had not so we did what anyone would do. We looked it up and learned that the library’s copy was checked out. So I asked to have it put on hold upon its return. Then last week it came in. The timing was perfect since I was just about to finished another book.

I began reading the book on a lovely late afternoon that I think was a Wednesday and by Thursday night, the story was told and the ending was over. It is a wonderful read and unlike any other book I have ever read. Though it is not considered a graphic novel, it does incorporate the use of pictures and drawing by the writer, Brian Selznick. When I began turning the pages the pictures introduce me to the story of a boy living in the train station in Paris during the silent film era. Throughout the story the pictures are used in a wonderful way that at first gave me the feeling of something familiar.

It was not until I read about the author that I learned he was influenced by silent films and wanted to use that affect in this story. He executed his trick with wonderful talent. I would recommend this book as a great read for the coming cooler months. It is gracefully told.

After finishing the book I was told that Brian Selznick’s next book, Wonder Struck had just been published. Told in the same fashion as Hugo Cabret, I hope the story is as magical.

If you have read either of these books or anything else by Brian Selznick, please tell us your story.

Happy Reading,

ORB