Saturday, July 28, 2012

Whoops - Behind in My Reviews Again!

Well, a couple of weeks ago I bragged about how I was caught up with my reviews.  Just kidding.  I now find myself behind again.  I've got 9 books to review (some of them from a while ago).  I'll do them in chunks of 3, starting with 3 of my solid B-Listers:  Sam Eastland, Robert Harris, and Philip Margolin.

Archive 17 is Eastland's 3rd book in the Pekkala series.  His first one, The Eye of the Red Tsar, just made my Volume IV of Fiction for the Non-Fiction Reader.  I enjoyed his second one too - Shadow Pass.  He has created an interesting character.  For those who don't remember, Pekkala was the top security man for the tsar at the time the tsar was overthrown in 1917.  When the Bolsheviks took over the government from the Romanovs, Pekkala was sent to a prison camp and then out to the nearby forest where he lived alone for 10 years.  No other prisoner had ever survived that sentence.  He ultimately ends up working directly for Stalin, starting in 1929.  That was the subject of Shadow Pass.  Now, in Archive 17, it is 1939, and Pekkala is still working for Stalin.  He poses as a prisoner who is sent to a gulag in Siberia so that he can uncover the location of the tsar's missing gold.  He has to infiltrate a prison gang that is known to be loyal to the tsar and who, allegedly, knows where the gold is  hidden.  Not only is the Soviet Union about to enter WWII, but it's also close to bankruptcy.  This, of course, makes Pekkala's mission crucial to Stalin.  I didn't like it as well as #1 and #2, but I still liked it well enough to keep reading his books.  If you haven't read Eastland yet, then pick up The Eye of the Red Tsar.

The Fear Index, from Robert Harris, is a modern-day take on Westworld (the Yul Brynner movie from 1973) and 2001, A Space Odyssey (1968).  The story centers on Alex, a brilliant American computer expert living in Geneva.  Hoffmann Investment Technologies, which he founded, is an investment company that makes decisions based on algorithms.  Basically, the computer adds up all of the facts, history, and recent trends surrounding a company and determines what buy and sell action should be taken - and then takes that action.  The people that work for the company, quants (short for quantitative analysts) just make sure that the computer is doing what it's supposed to be doing.  As you might expect, the computer begins to act in a way that goes beyond a computer's typical function.  I've liked, but not loved, all of his books.  I have never been tempted to include him in the FFTNFR lists, but his best one is Enigma.  That one takes place during WWII in England and focuses on the analysts who worked to break the German code in order to gain intelligence information about what the Germans were planning to do.  He wrote The Ghost, which was turned into a movie starring Ewen McGregor, Tilda Swinton, and Pierce Brosnan.  And he wrote a trilogy about Rome in the time of Cicero.  He is remarkably consistent.

Capitol Murder, Margolin's novel, is the 3rd centering on Brad Miller, an attorney, and Dana Cutler, a private investigator.  For a book with 340 pages, it has a lot of storylines.  Brad is living in Washington D.C. and working for Jack Carson, a senator who is a ranking member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.  Clarence Little, a convicted serial killer, was a client of Brad's when Brad worked for a law firm in Oregon.  Now, Clarence is being represented by Millie Reston who gets personally involved with Clarence and works to get his conviction overturned due to tainted evidence.  In the meantime, Brad's wife, Ginny, works for the district attorney's office and has an unknowing role in a CIA scheme.  Oh, did I mention that there's a terrorist cell in D.C. that is looking to blow up RFK Stadium during a Redskins' game?  Although I seem to be making fun of Margolin, I'm actually not.  All of the story lines make sense and come together.  Margolin is very much like Harris.  None of his books belong in the FFTNFR lists, but they are all very readable.  I have liked all of them.

UPCOMING:  I am well into my author interviews.  I will begin posting those in August.  I can only imagine how torturous it must be for all of you to wait for those.  Well, the wait is almost over!

PROGRAM NOTE:  My next blog will be a review of a book I received from a rep at HarperCollins.  This is the first book I have gotten from them.  And since I have not yet offended them (unlike Penguin Group, which has blackballed me from any future ARC's), I want to get my review in quickly.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Fiction for the Non-Fiction Reader - Volume IV

Well, as I told you last week, I now have Fiction for the Non-Fiction Reader, Volume IV.  What?  You say you didn't know there were Volumes I, II, and III?  Where have you been?  If you are interested in catching up, or you want a refresher course, you can find the first 3 volumes on February 19, 2011, February 18, 2012, and April 7, 2012.

Here we go:

David Baldacci - The Innocent.  I recently reviewed this, so I don't have to go into any detail.  But, as I mentioned in the review, this is 1 of my 3 favorite Baldacci's.  The other 2 are The Camel Club, which is in Volume II, and...

David Baldacci - Wish You Well.  I'm including this with an asterisk.  I absolutely loved this book.  The story centers around 2 young urban children who are sent to live with their grandmother in a very rural, backwoods location in West Virginia.  This is a big departure from his other books, which are mysteries.  The reason for the asterisk is that it is a very polarizing book.  I know many people who loved it and a few who didn't like it all.  The second group will be outraged that it is included.  I say to heck (this is a g-rated blog) with them.  It's my blog!

Sam Eastland - The Eye of the Red Tsar.  This is book 1 of 3 (I just read book 3, but I don't know if he plans on writing more).  The story takes place in Tsarist Russia shortly before the tsar is deposed (and subsequently murdered, along with his whole family).  Pekkala is the tsar's top security man.  This chronicles Pekkala's gulag sentence and, some years later, how he hooks up with Stalin.  It's a good story and a fun read.

James Clavell - Tai Pan.  This is his 2nd book (written in 1966), after Shogun.  It takes place in 1842 and is centered on the 2 largest shipping companies in the Far East.  The owners of the 2 companies (the top guy is the Tai Pan, or "big shot") spend the entire book trying to destroy each other.  It is an epic novel.  Although it's not as good as Shogun, it's still better than most everybody else's books.  It's a poor man's version of World without End (Follett).  It's not Shogun but still makes my top 50.

Steve Berry - The Romanov Prophecy.  Berry recently wrote The Columbus Affair, which I will be reviewing soon.  It was his first stand-alone since The Romanov Prophecy.  In between, he wrote 7 books about a single character - Cotton Malone.  I enjoy that series, but his stand-alones (the other one being The Amber Room, his first book) are better.  The Romanov Prophecy takes place in the present.  The Russian people want to bring the tsar back after a number of failed leaderships following the downfall of the Communists.  It is discovered that there is an actual Romanov still alive.  That, obviously, creates a power struggle.  On top of all that, there is an American lawyer who is involved in the Russian political process.  I thought this was a super clever idea.

Dean Koontz - Strangers.  Of his 40+ books, this one and Lightning (Volume II) are the best.  Strangers is definitely science fiction-y, but it is an excellent story.  There are a number of people with strange maladies who end up coming together in the Nevada desert.  The first 2/3 of the book develops the individual stories.  So, when they get together, it makes for a terrific climax (this is very similar to The Plot, by Irving Wallace, which is also in Volume II, but which wasn't science fiction).

Christopher Reich - The Patriots Club.  This is one of 4 books Reich wrote in which the hero is a finance type - accountant, Wall Street trader.  The other 3 are The First Billion, Numbered Account, and Devil's Banker.  All 4 are good, and you could start with any of them.  Unfortunately, after writing 5 books (the other was The Runner, which took place in post-war Germany in 1945), he started a series about Dr. Jonathan Ransom and his undercover wife, Emma, which I don't like nearly as well.  In fact, in book 2 of the series, he used the term "just then" so many times that I felt compelled to write him an email and point it out to him (you all know how shy I am!).  Well, to his credit, he responded.  He said that he didn't realize that he had used it so often.  When his 3rd book in the series came out, he only used "just then" 3 times.  I wrote him another email and congratulated him.  Unfathomably, he didn't respond.  Go figure.

Transfer of Power - Vince Flynn.  This is book 1 of 12 in the Mitch Rapp series.  Most everybody knows about this series.  It starts out strong, and every book is a good read.  Mitch is an ex-special forces kind of guy who works as a clandestine operative for the government (what literary figure doesn't these days?). He's another James West (from the Wild, Wild West).  Flynn even throws us readers for a loop by making books 11 and 12 about how Mitch started out.  Anyone who likes mysteries with he-men will like these books.

Daniel Silva - The Kill Artist.  This is another book 1 of 12 (his stand-alone, The Unlikely Spy, is in Volume I).  Gabriel Allon is an Israeli James West.  Besides starting out as a Mossad-like operative, he is also a world-class art restorer.  Yes, you read that right.  His stories usually include some kind of art restoring project.  It's pretty cool stuff.  Gabriel has gone through a personal tragedy which comes into play in every book.  I saw Daniel Silva a few years ago when he was on book tour.  He does an enormous amount of research.  In fact, one of his Allon books takes place in Russia, and his research included spending several weeks on location.  It was interesting to learn his take on what he saw.  He said that no matter what they call it, the modern-day KGB is alive and well and is stifling dissent - to the tune of assassinations of a lot of journalists.  Very interesting stuff.

Brian Haig (Alexander Haig's son) - Secret Sanction.  This is book 1 of 6.  The protagonist is Sean Drummond, who is a JAG - Judge Advocate General - which means he's a military attorney.  The stories all relate to a military murder mystery.  The books are very well-written; the plot is always interesting, and Sean is very funny.  You will enjoy the stories and appreciate the humor.

Michael Palmer - Oath of Office.  I've already done a review of this one recently too.  Palmer has written 17 novels.  Most of them have been medical mysteries which take place in Boston.  The last couple centered on Washington D.C.  I have enjoyed these last 2 (the other one was A Heartbeat Away) more than the first 15.  Dr. Lou Welcome is a 42-year old doctor who lost his license (and marriage) due to drugs and alcohol.  He now works part-time for the Physician Wellness Office as a case worker for doctors who have some form of mental illness.  He ends up investigating the incidence of bizarre behavior among a number of doctors and how it relates to genetically modified food.  Along the way, he is allied with the president's wife, who is, herself, a doctor.  Once again, Palmer creates a story that is timely.

John Jakes - The Bastard.  This is book 1 of 8.  I absolutely loved this series.  The story starts in the late 1760's and ends in the first decade of the 20th century.  This is historical fiction at its finest.  The protagonist, Philip Kent (born Phillippe Charboneau) leaves England for the colonies because he has been denied his birthright.  Of course, American history is woven into Philip and his descendants.  I have had one person tell me he thought book 1 was just fair, but all historical fiction buffs will eat this up.

W.E.B. Griffin - Semper Fi, The Lieutenants, By Order of the President.  These are all book 1 for 3 fantastic military series.  The first one is The Corps (10 books) and takes place during WWII.  The 2nd is Brotherhood of War (9 books) and goes from WWII through the Vietnam War.  The 3rd is the The Presidential Agent (7) and is modern-day.  They're all 3 excellent series from the first book through the last book.  In fact, The Presidential Agent series is ongoing.  Griffin has written 3 other series - Honor Bound (pretty good), Men at War (fair), and Badge of Honor (a police series - I read book 1 and didn't like it - stopped).  Griffin is not for everybody, even though it's included on this list.  I would recommend you read book 1 of any of the first 3 series mentioned above and decide for yourself.

Wow was this long-winded.  Sorry about that.  I hope something catches your eye.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

3 More Book Reviews (told you I'd catch up!)

I am reviewing 3 books that couldn't be more different.  The first is Gossip by Beth Gutcheon.  This is Beth's 9th book.  I have a history with Beth (it's not what you think).  She is married to the headmaster of the school, Hillbrook, that all 3 of my kids attended.  One of her books, Saying Grace, centers on a private school very similar to Hillbrook.  In fact, there is an incident in the book that closely approximates the experience that my youngest, Lauren, went through as a child.  Lauren stuck her finger in the armhole of a Ken (of Barbie and Ken fame) doll, and nothing we did could extricate it.  Finally, and I'm not kidding here, we had to call the fire department who came and, after much discussion and effort, cut the doll from around her finger.  It sounds crazy, but it actually happened.  Imagine how much fun it was to read Beth's book and know (or at least suspect) that it was patterned after what happened to Lauren.

But enough of my asides.  Gossip tells the story of Lovie French who owns a dress shop in Manhattan that caters to the high end of society.  Lovie's story starts in boarding school where she becomes lifelong friends with Dinah and Avis.  A lot of different stories branch off from the main characters, including their children and everybody's respective careers.  Mix in some affairs, extra-marital and otherwise, and it covers a lot of ground.

This book reminded me of Meg Waite Clayton's The Four Ms. Bradwells.  They both chronicle the friendships of women who meet at a young age and then stay friends long into adulthood.  Besides that similarity, both authors can really write.  Their books resemble literature which, as many of you know, I try to avoid (my mind being a bit too simple to appreciate good writing!).  Beth has a great vocabulary which she uses in such a way that it does not distract from the story.  That's not an easy thing to do.  We've all read books in which the author loses his/her way because of a dependence on "big words."  Beth uses her big words naturally.  They enhance the story, not the other way around.  I recommend this book to all of those people who don't need shoot-'em-ups in order to enjoy a book (and you know who you are).  As for you men out there, if you have at least a trace of metrosexual-ness, then you will enjoy it too.

The 2nd book is James Grippando's Need You Now.  This is his 18th adult novel (he's written 1 young adult book), and I have read them all.  He is a solid "B" lister.  I have liked all of his books and will continue to read every adult book he writes.  Need You Now is the story of a Bernie Madoff-like Ponzi scheme and how it endangers the lives of a young male Wall Street advisor and the young female banker that he is tied to.  There are, of course, dangerous investors and crooked government officials.  While not necessarily super original, it's a good story and kept me engaged throughout.  It had the added feature of an appearance by FBI agent, Andie Henning, who has appeared now in 8 of Grippando's books.  It's always fun to have her in the story.

My 3rd review will be short.  The book is September Snow by Robert Balmanno.  I came across Robert at Barnes & Noble in The Pruneyard.  As you know, I always buy a book from an author that I come across in a bookstore.  In every case prior to this one, I have enjoyed the book at least somewhat and, in some cases, quite a lot.  Not so much this one.  The story takes place in 2051 in a very dystopian (one of the all-time great words!) society.  Everything is manipulated including the weather.  Those who are unfortunate enough to live outside the protective shield of the domes are ravaged by sun poisoning.  Sounds pretty interesting, eh?  I got to page 60 and had to stop reading.  I simply couldn't go another page.  I probably average 1 unfinished book every 5 years.  I have read a bunch of stuff that I didn't like, but I was still able to get through the book. No could do this time.

Here's the clincher - Tim Gray, whoever he is, compared it to Dune, Brave New World, and Nineteen Eighty Four.  I'm not sure what Mr. Gray was smoking at the time he gave this quote,  but I assure you it was something hallucinogenic.

PROGRAM NOTE (huh?):  Fiction for the Non-Fiction Reader, Volume IV, is coming in the next week and a half.  After that, I will start posting blogs from the author interviews.  I have added 2 more local authors since I gave you the list last week - Sheldon Siegel and Michael David Lukas.  There could be more.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

3 Reviews of Books Recommended by My Buddy Phil

My friend Phil is an avid reader (along with a bunch of others, too numerous to mention).  He has recently recommended 2 books, Defending Jacob by William Landay and The Innocent by David Baldacci.  Quite a few months ago, he strongly urged me to read The Lock Artist by Steve Hamilton.  I kept telling him "Sure," went out and bought it, but kept it in my queue.  After reading The Innocent and Defending Jacob back-to-back, I immediately started The Lock Artist.  For those keeping score, that means I read Phil's suggestions back-to-back-to-back (see how that works?).

I will never put Phil off again.  They were all really good, with The Innocent being one of Baldacci's best.  Baldacci has written 24 novels, and I have read them all.  I would have read this one eventually, but Phil's push got me there sooner.  I really loved this book.  All of his books have been good, but 3, including this one, have been outstanding.  My favorite of his is Wish You Well.  It's the story of 2 young children who lost their parents and end up living with their backwoods grandma in a very rural area of West Virginia (WARNING:  Some people love this book, and others don't like it at all).  My second favorite of his is The Camel Club.  This is about a homeless guy who lives across the street from The White House in a tent.  He also works as a caretaker in a cemetery.  Of course, he is not as he appears to be.  He and his cohorts are extremely colorful.  Baldacci wrote 4 books in this series.  All of them are entertaining, but The Camel Club is the best.

Now we have The Innocent.  This is the story of an American assassin who gets caught up in a power struggle among very highly placed American spymasters.  He spends much of his time on the run with a 14-year old girl who recently became an orphan (this comes out at the beginning of the book, so no SPOILER ALERT was necessary).  This is a very good story, a la so many like it.  What separates this from most of the others is the 14-year old.  Their very unlikely relationship definitely heightened my interest.  You don't normally get teenagers who are integral to a plotline when you have assassins in the mix.  Very cool.  This actually is going into my Fiction for the Non-Fiction Reader (FFTNFR), volume IV.

The 2nd book of this threesome is Landay's Defending Jacob.  It's the story of another 14-year old, this time a boy, who is accused of murdering a classmate.  This is Landay's 3rd book, and I admit that I had never heard of him prior to Phil reading and recommending it.  The story is told in the first person by Jacob's father, Andy, who is a long-time district attorney in a suburb in Massachusetts.  I enjoyed this a lot.  Much of the book is the chronological history of what led to the indictment and the trial and, of course, what happens afterwards.  Landay intersperses Andy's storytelling with transcripts of the assistant district attorney questioning Andy a year after the murder.  To Landay's credit, the transcripts never give anything away.  At least I couldn't figure any of it out.  P.S.  The ending is crazy.

The 3rd book is The Lock Artist.  It's a very unusual story about a teenager who, due to a trauma when he was 8, can't speak.  But he learns early on that he has a unique gift - he can open locks; doors, padlocks, safes, doesn't matter.  This skill, and other circumstances, lead him to working with nefarious (I love that word) characters.  There are a number of "jobs" that he does, which lead to unexpected results.  On top of all that, there's a pretty satisfying love story.

I certainly have not read another book like this one.  I will admit that the book split into 2 parts for me,  and it was right at the half-way point (304 pages total).  The first half of the book was good.  I was enjoying it.  Then, right in the middle, something happened that elevated it for me.  Of course I'm not going to tell you what that was.  Suffice it to say that I was even more engaged in the story for the second half of the book.  Steve Hamilton has written 11 novels.  9 of them are with the same character, and the other 2, including The Lock Artist, are stand-alones.  I will definitely read more of his stuff.

There you have it.  I have gotten recommendations from many people (Bob and Rich come to mind immediately), but this is the first time I've read 3 in a row from the same recommender.  I'm glad I did.