Sunday, March 31, 2013

A Veteran with 17 and a Rookie with 1

I recently posted a blog that referred to the yin and the yang - one book so good (The Language of Flowers) and the other not so much (Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close).  Once again, I'm working with the yin and the yang, this time due to the experience of the 2 authors:  One with 17 novels and the other with 1.  See how versatile yin and yang are?

Phillip Margolin's 17th novel, Sleight of Hand, will hit the stores (and ereaders) on April 9.  I have read all of Margolin's books and have enjoyed each and every one - to varying degrees.  Some I've liked a lot, and others I've simply liked.  This one is in the 2nd category.  As I've mentioned ad nauseum (I'm sure you've read some of my posts and come down with that particular condition!), there is a definite comfort knowing that when you pick up a Margolin (or a Michael Palmer or a James Grippando or...), that you will be entertained.  The writing is always good, and the story lines hold your attention.  If some are better than others, that's really okay.

Sleight of Hand centers around Dana Cutler (for the 4th time), who is a private investigator in D.C.  She gets involved in a very bizarre case involving a multi-millionaire businessman, his wife who is a federal prosecutor, and a well-known criminal defense attorney who dabbles in magic and illusions.  10 years earlier, Horace (the rich guy) actually confesses in court to a DUI so that he can get close to Carrie (the federal prosecutor).  They end up getting married, and Horace has Carrie sign a pre-nup that says she will get 20 million dollars if she stays faithful to him for 10 years.  The week before the 10-year anniversary, Carrie disappears.  Charles (the criminal defense attorney) becomes very involved in ALL aspects of this case.  Add in a royal scepter from the Ottoman Empire, and you've got a lot of story in a fairly short book (309 pages in the ARC - advanced reader's copy - with big print and only 30 lines per full page).  I thought some of his details were a little far-fetched.  But he took a complicated plot and held it together pretty well.

As I said, I liked this book.  It's not one of his better ones, but you won't be disappointed.  Not every book can make "the best of..." list.  In fact, I'm sure that Margolin will be plenty happy if it makes the New York Times Bestseller List.  That will, very likely, get him over the bitter disappointment of receiving just a 2.5 from The Book Sage.

The 2nd book, by Chris Pavone, the rookie, is The Expats.  This one came from our 4th Tuesday Book Club at Books, Inc., in Palo Alto.  I liked this one quite a bit and gave it a 3.0.  Kate's husband, Dexter, comes home one night and tells her that they're moving to Luxembourg (how many novels take place there!).  He is a computer security expert, and Luxembourg is the private banking capital of the world.  He is being paid a bunch of money to go over there and work on computer security for one of those private banks.  They have 2 children, and Dexter tells her that they will go to an English school with all of the other expats.  There's just one small thing about Kate that Dexter doesn't know - she's a CIA spy!  Her past will catch up to her in Luxembourg.  Throw in another expat couple with their own set of secrets, and it makes for quite an interesting set of plots and subplots (as opposed to "plotz" - look it up).  I would characterize this book as a well-written, almost literary, spy mystery.  It's a cool combo.  To paraphrase the old Alka Seltzer commercial:  "Read it, you'll like it."

Alex Berenson - The Night Ranger - Book #7 in the John Wells series

The Night Ranger, by Alex Berenson, is the 7th book in the John Wells series.  Wells made his debut in The Faithful Spy (which was also Berenson's 1st book).  The premise of that book was so unique and well-thought-out (like Michael Lavigne’s Not Me) that it made my very first Fiction for the Non-Fiction Reader (FFTNFR) list, posted on February 19, 2011.  In that book, Wells is a CIA operative that infiltrates Al Queda.  He not only lives with AQ for 10 years in the Pakistani mountains, he actually converts to Islam.  Isn’t that really a cool concept?  I thought so.  But here’s the problem:  The succeeding books have become less and less interesting.  The Night Ranger is only a 2.5 out of 4 (it’s certainly not cracking my best of 2013 let alone my top 12 all-time!).  Berenson hasn’t been able to do what Vince Flynn, Daniel Silva, W.E.B. Griffin, et al have been able to do – i.e. at least maintain the same quality of story/writing as the 1st in the series.  And, in Silva’s case, his last book is my favorite of the Gabriel Allon series that has, so far, spanned 12 books.  In the case of Griffin’s Honor Bound series, each book of the 6 has actually gotten better, with #6, Victory and Honor, being the best one yet.  So there’s no rule that says an author has to get either lazy or careless, or “whatever” about his series.

Having done my usual off-the-track rambling, I am now prepared to spend a couple of sentences on The Night Ranger.  4 friends, who have recently graduated from college in Montana, go to a Somalian refugee camp in Kenya to volunteer.  After 3 months there, they decide to take a day trip to the beach.  They are kidnapped and become a worldwide cause celebre (just to let you know that I can be intellectual on (rare) occasion).  The ramifications of not getting the kids back alive could lead to a war.  John Wells receives a call from his estranged teenage son, Evan, who is friends with the sister of one of the kidnapped girls.  Evan asks Wells to go to Kenya and find the 4.  How can Wells say no to such a simple request?  The rest of the book is spent with Wells, mostly solo, chasing down the kidnapped kids.

If I seem to be taking a ho-hum tone, I think I’m being a little bit harsh.  The 1st half of the book is slow but does pick up in the 2nd half.  I like John Wells, but I don’t have the emotional attachment to him that I have with Vince Flynn’s or Daniel Silva’s protagonists.  I will say that I felt a connection on page 143 between one of the kidnapped girls (2 girls and 2 boys) and the leader of the kidnappers.  And, lo and behold, I felt some emotion on page 277 when Wells was talking to his son, from Kenya to Montana.

Will I read book #8 next January?  Probably.  After all, it is a 2.5.  There’s nothing wrong with reading authors that can write solid, readable, entertaining books (they can’t all be The Angels’ Share or The Language of Flowers).  But I can’t help pining for something resembling The Faithful Spy.  Am I being unfair or unreasonable?  Perhaps.  But, then again, it's my blog, and I answer to no one - except you readers, of course. 

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Diffenbaugh and Foer - the Yin and the Yang

I don't know which is good and which is bad - the yin or the yang - but Vanessa Diffenbaugh's The Language of Flowers and Jonathan Safran Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close are just that.  Last week, I named Language one of my top 12 all-time (see 3/21 post).  I even created a new rating - 4.5.  But I didn't really like Extremely much.  Of course, we all know that Extremely was made into a recent movie with Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock.  I didn't see - maybe if I had, I would have liked the book better - but I doubt it.

First, the good news.  The Language of Flowers is an amazing book.  Victoria Jones has had a really rough life.  She has gone from one foster parent to another, followed by one foster home to another.  She has had behavioral/social issues wherever she's been.  Her one saving grace is that she spent a year and a half with one foster parent and, while there, learned the intricate details about flowers - what they represent and how best to care for them.  This will benefit her greatly after she turns 18 and finds herself on her own.

I don't want to tell you any more than that.  But I will mention a couple of things.  First, a first for me.  There were 2 spots late in the book where I actually yelled.  At one point I said "Noooooooo." and the other time I said "s__t."  I have never spoken out loud while reading a book.  Fortunately, nobody was in proximity to me when I lost control of my emotions.

Secondly, I have never in my entire literary life wanted a reconnection as much as I wanted it here.  I know I'm getting soft(er) in my old age/dotage, but this darn book is just perfect.  I don't know how else to describe it.  Already I've spoken/emailed/texted with a number of people who have all, without exception, loved this book.  If you haven't read it, do it.

As far as Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is concerned - not so fast.  This is the story of 9-year old Oskar Schell, whose father died in the 9/11 attacks.  Oskar finds a key in his dad's possession that he tries to match up to a lock.  His mission takes him through the 5 boroughs.  He encounters many interesting people.  I liked that part about the book.  But I wasn't crazy about most of the writing.  Actually, there were 3 elements of the book that helped me get through it:  1)  full-page pictures; 2) blank pages; and 3) 1- or 2- line pages.  I know that doesn't speak well of the book, but, otherwise, I don't know how I would have gotten through it.  Do you remember when I recently said that I liked Louise Erdrich's The Round House, in spite of the fact that it was a National Book Award winner?  Well, this book received the American Place Theatre's Literature to Life Award, whatever the heck that is.  My point is that I usually don't care much for an award-winning book as borne out by Extremely.  Let's just say that the people who make those decisions are not my kind of people.  Oh, and did I mention that there are some paragraphs in Extremely that are 4, 5, and 6 pages long?  Really?

Having whined about all of that, there were a couple of places in the book that I thought had impact:  1) "He looked at me and through me at the same time, like I was a stained-glass window" (that's a cool description); 2) Oskar says to his mother "If I could have chosen, I would have chosen you."  He's saying that he would have preferred she died in 9/11 instead of his dad.  Ouch. 

I read Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close because it was the Books, Inc. 4th Tuesday Book Club selection for March.  Maybe after we meet this coming Tuesday night, I'll have a different opinion...nah.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

John Elder Robison - Up Close and Personal

Earlier this week, I saw John Elder Robison at Book Passage in Corte Madera.  In case you don't know who he is, John is a 55-year old with Asperger's.  His first book, Look Me in the Eye, which I read and reviewed 2 years ago (2/11/11), was about his childhood, growing up with Asperger's before the condition was labeled.  He followed that with Be Different (which I haven't read), which talks about his later childhood and gives practical tips on how to interact with an Asperger's child.  His latest, Raising Cubby, is about his teenage son, who also has Asperger's  and had a run-in with the federal government regarding bomb-making!
John is an enthusiastic speaker with a lot to say.  He is nationally known for his tireless work (as well as his books) raising awareness about Asperger's and currently sits on several boards.  And, by all means, read Look Me in the Eye.  It's really good.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

12 Books That Rate A 4.5 - Out Of A Possible 4 - How Can That Be?

I just finished The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh.  I will review it in a later post.  But here's what I discovered:  I liked this book so much that I felt it was better than a 4.0.  That got me to thinking (surprised?).  How many books have I read that I would rate a 4.5.  I came up with a total of 12 - 12 out of 3000-4000!  Are you kidding me?  So, here they are - in alphabetical order (I know, I'm becoming predictable):

Baldacci, David - Wish You Well
Clavell, James - Shogun
Conroy, Pat - My Losing Season (non-fiction)
Conroy, Pat - South of Broad
Diffenbaugh, Vanessa - The Language of Flowers
Follett, Ken - Pillars of the Earth
Follett, Ken - Winter of the World
Haley, Alex - Roots
King, Steven - 11/22/63
McMurtry, Larry - Lonesome Dove
Michener, James - The Source
Walls, Jeanette - The Glass Castle (non-fiction)

There certainly may be others, but I did go through my 5 FFTNFR lists.  And let's not forget that there are many 4.0's that are darn good.  But I have to say that these 12 appear to be the cream.  Who agrees (and disagrees)?

Monday, March 18, 2013


I thought it would be fun to list all of the local (S.F. Bay Area) authors that I have read at least once since beginning this blog (January, 2011).  Here are the 27 in alphabetical order:

Adair, Marina
Alexander, Cassie
Ballou, Mardi
Barrett, Elisabeth
Black, Cara
Blackwell, Juliett
Clayton, Meg Waite
Dart, Julie
DePaul, Virna
Eisler, Barry
Haynes, Jasmine
Jayne, Hannah
La Plante, Alice
Lamott, Ann
Lavigne, Michael
Lukas, Michael David
Michel, Deborah
Raffel, Keith
Senft, Adina
Siegel, Sheldon
Silverberry, A.R.
Sloan, Robin
Sussman, Ellen
Swan, Joan
Sweet, Victoria
Waters, Rayme
Helene Wecker

In case you didn't read the title of this post, I LOVE LOCAL AUTHORS!

P.S.  If  I left anybody out, I sincerely apologize.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Manuscript Found in Accra - the Latest from Paulo Coelho (The Alchemist)

I haven't received the ARC for Manuscript Found in Accra yet.  However, Random House's rep, Jonathan Lazzara, did send us bloggers a youtube video introducing the book.  I'm including it in this post.  And, by the way, the book will be published in April.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

The Round House - A National Book Award winner (I think that's a big deal)

The Round House, a National Book Award winner, is written by Louise Erdrich.  I got to read this because HarperCollins gave all of its bloggers the option of being sent a copy, even though it was already published.  It was really nice to receive an actual book, as opposed to an ARC (advanced reader's copy).  Did I like it?  I did.  I give it a 3.0.  Not bad considering it's good enough to win an award.  Normally I stay away from those!

So, Louise Erdrich is 25% Native-American (Ojibwe).  Her grandfather was a tribal leader.  And she writes novels (and poems and non-fiction essays and short stories) about Native-American people.  This novel (her 14th) takes place in 1988 on a reservation in North Dakota.  The story centers on a family of 3 - Bazil, who is a tribal judge, his wife, Geraldine, who works at the tribal enrollment office, and Joe, their 13-year old son.  Everything revolves around Geraldine being attacked and all of the fallout from that incident.

This is a very good book.  It reminds me of the book I recently read by Barbara Kingsolver (my 1st), Flight Behavior (which I reviewed on 10/25/12) in terms of being well-written.  But I like Erdrich better.  The Round House was more readable for me.  I think that a lot of authors who write "literature" forget that most of us readers want something that we don't have to work at.  This book does that.

I know you're tired of hearing me make this comment.  But I always come back to whether or not the book grabs me.  Am I emotionally involved?  In The Round House, I was worried on page 5 when Geraldine went missing, felt better on page 6 because she turned up, and then felt lousy again on page 7 when she wasn't okay.  Maybe it's just me, but I need the connection in order to really enjoy a book.  I definitely have it here.

All of the supporting characters are interesting:  Joe's 3 good buddies, a local priest, and a very odd spinster who helps Joe find his mother's attacker.  And then there's Sonja, an exotic dancer who marries one of Joe's uncles and helps him run a gas station/ convenience store.  Sonja puts on a birthday strip tease for Joe's old grandfather that is very powerful - and not just because I'm an able-bodied(?) typical male.

I really like that Erdrich spends time talking about Native-American traditions.  In fact, the Round House is specifically a place of worship on the reservation.  I really like how she blends age-old customs in a modern Native-American setting.  I also like how she shows her readers the injustices that the Native-Americans have faced and still face (at least as of 1988).  And she does this through a Native-American attorney.  For an American-born caucasian, it's very enlightening.

The only thing I really don't like is her lack of quotation marks.  I sometimes find it difficult to figure out who said what and whether the last sentence was an internal musing or an actual out-loud statement.  Since I have to obsessively understand every word I'm reading in every book, I can get a little bogged down with that style of writing.

All in all, I like it and am recommending it.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Fiction for the Non-Fiction Reader - #5

My first 4 lists had 13 books, the proverbial baker's dozen.  And Volume IV was posted on July 16, 2012.  Well, I'm now ready for Volume V.  But it won't have 13 recommendations.  Instead, there will only be 8 - and one of them is non-fiction (blasphemous!).  Why are there only 8, you ask (what? you didn't ask?!)?  The reason is simple:  I thought it was time for another list, and I don't have 13 surefire winners to post.  So, sue me.

Here they are.  And 4 of them are from 2012.  I won't talk much about them because you can see in-depth reviews (I'm sure you've all done that already!) from the 2012 posts.  The other 4 are worth taking a look at (and as they say on Dancing with the Stars - I think I've used this line before - they are in no particular order).

Pat Conroy - My Losing Season (2003).  This is Pat's one non-fiction book.  What's interesting about this book is that his father was a military man and, evidently, a very strict disciplinarian.  Pat used his father as the model for The Great Santini and several of his other novels.  But he wouldn't tell a non-fiction story until his father passed away.  And My Losing Season is that book.  Just like The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls, this book reads like fiction.  Pat was captain of The Citadel basketball team when he was a senior in college.  They were supposed to be a top-notch team that year.  The book rotates between events during basketball season and childhood memories.  It's totally terrific.

Jeff Shaara - Rise to Rebellion (2001) - If you like historical fiction, you're going to love this one.  This is the story of the events that led to the American Revolution.  It alternates chapters in the voices of American and British historical figures - such as George Washington, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Gage (British military leader) and others - along with several fictional characters.  It is very clever and very enlightening.  What a great way to learn about the events leading up to the war.  It does not go into the conflict itself.

William Martin - Back Bay (1979) - This is Martin's 1st book of 9.  I read 1 or 2 others, but this is the one that I think is a must read.  Like My Losing Season, Back Bay also goes back and forth, this time between a Boston clan of 6 generations and a treasure made and hidden by Paul Revere (remember, he was a silversmith) that the clan is looking for.  I loved the whole story line and how it went from the present to Revere and back again.  This is a very good story.

Alex Hailey - Roots (1976) - Everybody knows about this one because of the mini-series.  We've all seen Kunta Kinte being snatched from Gambia, in Africa, in the 1760's and sold to a plantation owner.  The book spans 6 generations (this is not a misprint - it's the same as Back Bay).  It is a particularly rich look at slavery in the American South.  What's interesting for me is that I saw the mini-series first.  I usually read a book before I see the TV show or the movie.  This one was reversed.  And as much as I liked the TV adaptation, the book was better.  Again, for historical fiction fans, this is one great book.  And for those of you who don't care about historical fiction, it's still a great read.

These next 4 are from 2012.  They are my #1, #2, #3, and #5 books of the year (#4, The Innocent, by David Baldacci, is already in FFTNFR, Volume IV).

Ken Follett - Winter of the World (#1) - This is book 2 in The Century Trilogy.  It focuses on 6 families (there's that number 6 again!) from America and Europe, and it centers on WWII (book 1, Fall of Giants, revolves around the same 6 families in and around WWI).  Winter of the World has already become one of my favorite books all-time.

Stephen King - 11/22/63 (#2) - I know I have blogged about this book ad nauseum, but I can't help it.  It's just so darn good.  As everybody by now is aware, it's the story of a modern-day man who goes back in time to stop the assassination of JFK.  I am still amazed at how plausible the entire story unfolds once you accept the premise of time travel.  It's a masterful work - and also one of my all-time favorites.

Rayme Waters - The Angels' Share (#3) - This is Rayme's 1st book, and you all know I loved it.  It's not a complicated story line, it's just really well done.  Here's Amazon's synopsis:  "The story of a recovering meth addict who rebuilds her life working for a small Sonoma County winery".  It's a whole bunch more than that.

Michael Zadoorian - The Leisure Seeker (#5) - This was written in 2009, and I only became aware of it through the Los Gatos Library Book Club.  I normally only get there 2-3 times a year (usually, I attend the Books, Inc. 4th Tuesday Book Club - and 2 in one month is too much "assigned" reading).  I'm really glad I was there for this one.  Very briefly, an 80-year old couple decides to drive from Detroit to Disneyland on Route 66, something they did with their kids many years before.  Let me quote Amazon again:  "The Leisure Seeker "is a sweet natured travelogue that's about the end of the road in more ways than one...The Dangerous Book for Seniors!" - Bob Morris, author of Assisted Loving, "A sort of Easy Rider meets The Notebook.""

Happy Reading!

Punctuation note:  Sorry for the awkward double quotation marks at the end of the last paragraph.  I couldn't figure out how else to do it.