Book Review: The Casual Vacancy

September 18, 2013 Books to Skip, Fiction 0

Casual VacancyThe Casual Vacancy
by J.K. Rowling, Fiction (Released September, 2012)

Bottom Line: Skip it.
Summary: The unexpected death of Pagford Parish Council member Barry Fairbrother sparks a backstabbing competition to fill his vacated Council seat.
My Thoughts: I should first give you some context so you can appropriately judge my thoughts: I thought the first Harry Potter book was fine (but not fantastic), and I did not read all seven of them. That being said, Rowling’s latest book confused me. When I first started reading it, I wondered if Rowling was being sarcastic about small town British politics and the people who take them very seriously – like the movie “Best in Show”. As the book goes on, I realized this probably wasn’t the case, but I think it would have made for much more entertaining reading. Overall, the book was fine – I wasn’t really into it, but didn’t have trouble finishing it either. I just didn’t get the point of it and I couldn’t make myself care who won Barry Fairbrother’s Council seat. Maybe it suffered from overblown expectations because it was written by J.K. Rowling or maybe I’m one of the only people on earth who is not a huge Rowling fan.

Book Review: The Cuckoo’s Calling

September 15, 2013 Books to Read, Fiction, Mysteries/Thrillers 0

Cuckoo's CallingThe Cuckoo’s Calling
by Robert Galbraith (aka J.K. Rowling), Fiction (Released April, 2013)

Bottom Line: Read it.
Summary: Down on his luck detective, Cormoran Strike, and his temporary secretary, Robin, investigate the suspicious suicide of famous model Lula Landry at the behest of her adopted brother.
My Thoughts: This book got lots of buzz a few months after its publication under the pseudonym “Robert Galbraith”. “Galbraith” was soon outed as Harry Potter series author J.K. Rowling and the book shot to number one on Amazon’s Bestseller List within hours (it had previously only sold 500 copies). I was certainly interested to see how Rowling tackled the mystery/thriller genre, even though I was not a fan of her first “adult” fiction effort, The Casual Vacancy. Cuckoo is a standard mystery with more fully developed characters than you find in most thrillers. I feel like most mysteries consist of events happening in quick succession and don’t focus much on the characters themselves. Rowling does a great job developing characters, especially Lula. I felt like I intimately knew her even though she was dead in the book’s first paragraph. It actually made me think of how police must get to know the victims in the course of real-life murder investigations. Though the investigation builds more slowly than in many mysteries I’ve read, I felt like it was more true to the pace of a real life murder investigation. Rowling also used the old standby of the “down on his luck, but quite talented” detective type – like Stieg Larsson’s Mikael Blomkvist and Jo Nesbo’s Harry Hole. But, despite the familiar archetype, Cormoran Strike was a likable and entertaining character. Finally, the ending did have a few too many convenient coincidences that enabled Strike to solve the puzzle. But, all in all, Cuckoo is a well-written mystery with more in-depth characters than usual for the genre. It’s going on my Page Turners List.

Book Review: The Art of Intelligence

September 13, 2013 Books to Read, History, Nonfiction 0

Art of IntelligenceThe Art of Intelligence: Lessons from a Life in the CIA’s Clandestine Service
by Henry A. Crumpton, Nonfiction – History (Released May, 2012)
Bottom Line: Read it.
Summary: Henry Crumpton, counter-terrorism expert and leader of the Afghanistan campaign for the CIA, discusses his career, the Afghanistan war, and US counter-terrorism policy.
My Thoughts: I was worried this book might be too technical, but Crumpton did a great job making it entertaining for average readers. I learned so much about our intelligence efforts, particularly relating to Al Qaeda BEFORE 9/11 and during the Afghanistan war. I never knew that the initial attack was run by the CIA – not the military or the Dept. of Defense – because they were the only ones with an understanding of the enemy. I was fascinated by the relationship between Washington politics and intelligence, the development of the Predator drone first as an intelligence gathering tool and then a weapon, and the use of many private sector executives (including Fortune 500 CEOs and University Presidents) to gather foreign intelligence and recruit foreign agents. This book is on my Books for Guys List.

Book Review: The Light in the Ruins

September 11, 2013 Books to Read, Fiction, Historical Fiction 0

Light in the RuinsThe Light in the Ruins
by Chris Bohjalian, Historical Fiction 
(Released July, 2013)

Bottom Line: Read it.
A serial killer targets the aristocratic Rosati family in post – World War II Italy, which takes the family and police investigator (Serafina) back to their experiences during Italy’s wartime alliance with Germany.
My Thoughts: Chris Bohjalian is one of my favorite authors, so I had been looking forward to his latest historical fiction novel and he did not disappoint! The Light in the Ruins is a wartime family saga mixed with a suspenseful murder mystery. As I was reading, I kept thinking the book reminded me of a cross between Winter of the World by Ken Follett and The Monster of Florence, the true story of a serial killer who stalked lovers in the countryside outside Florence. And lo and behold, Bohjalian mentioned in the Afterward how The Monster of Florence helped him write this book! He flips back and forth between the story of the Rosatis’ experience as Italian aristocracy during World War II (the part that reminded me of Winter of the World) and the murder mystery happening ten years later in Florence (the part that reminded me of The Monster of Florence). It’s clear that the two stories will intersect at some point and it’s almost like they are hurtling towards each other…with the 1940’s story working forward and the 1950’s story going back in time. I loved this structure and I kept visualizing two trains on the same track speeding towards the inevitable collision that will explain everything. As he alternates between the two time periods, Bohjalian also intersperses thoughts from the killer, which leave small clues to help the reader try to solve the mystery. As I read more and more about WWII history, I continue to find angles of thought and experience that are new to me and this was no exception. This book focuses on the experiences of Italians who are “officially” allied with Germany, but who detest Hitler and the Germans in their hearts, and the moral compromises they make to survive. I also learned a lot about the wartime looting of Italian art and historical artifacts by the Germans. This was a book that I just wanted to keep reading and I had to force myself to stop long enough to make notes for my review – which is a good thing! The Light in the Ruins is going on my Book Club Recommendations List.

Book Review: Sweet Tooth

September 11, 2013 Books to Skip, Fiction 0

Sweet ToothSweet Tooth: A Novel
by Ian McEwan, Fiction (Released November, 2012) 

Bottom Line: Skip it. 
Summary: Serena Frome, a new employee of the 1970′s British MI5, is tapped to participate in an undercover project (called Sweet Tooth) that “supports” writers the Service believes share its anti-Communist views and falls in love with the man she is being paid to manipulate.
My Thoughts: I have to confess, this was my first McEwan book (no, I have not even read his accliaimed 2003 novel, Atonement…). So, I’m coming into this with no prior opinion of McEwan’s writing. I thought the spy thriller/love story plot sounded intriguing, but this was a “stop and start” book for me. I got to certain parts and thought “hooray, this is getting good”. Then, shortly after, the story would meander and I found my mind wandering. This happened over and over. There were a few very long “stories within the story” that completely interrupted the flow of the central plot and could have been summarized in a quarter of the length. There were also too many references to various “serious literary authors” and long, boring discussions about the merits of these authors. I found it somewhat odd that Serena did not begin her involvement in Operation Sweet Tooth until fairly far into the book given the Operation was the story’s central premise. All that being said, I thought the ending was intriguing, I enjoyed McEwan’s writing style, and I may try another one of his books at some point…possibly Atonement.

Book Review & Giveaway: In the Land of the Living

September 8, 2013 Books to Skip, Fiction 1

A big thank you to TLC Book Tours for providing me with a copy of this book via NetGalley and for inviting me to be a host on this tour.

Giveaway: Please write a note in the comments section if you would like to receive a free copy of this book courtesy of TLC Book Tours. I will randomly select the winner.

In the Land of the LivingIn the Land of the Living: A Novel
by Austin Ratner, Fiction (Released March, 2013)
Bottom Line: Skip it.
Summary: A family saga where Leo and Mack (the two sons of “great man” Isidore Auberon) fight internal battles to live up to their father’s legacy and build a functional relationship.
My Thoughts: 
I originally thought this book was going to be mostly about Isidore and his relationship with his bitter, Communist father who constantly complains in Yiddish. Some plot summaries I read describe the book that way. However, it ended up being much more about Isidore’s sons living in the shadow of his legacy. I can usually tell if I’m going to like a book within the first quarter, but my opinion changed during this one. I felt the storytelling in Part 1, which focuses on Isidore’s life and relationship with his father, was incredibly jumpy – it was basically the choppy life chronology of an under-developed character. The story skipped over huge chunks of the characters’ lives and went from Point A to B without telling the reader anything about how it got there (i.e. Isidore sees his lady of interest, Laura, across campus for the first time and the next scene has them out on a date, then you next read about Isidore asking Laura’s father for her hand in marriage. We missed the entire relationship!). I also had trouble latching onto the narrator’s (Isidore) voice – I just couldn’t get a feel for his personality. In Part 2, which focuses on Leo (Isidore’s oldest son) growing up, the story is more about his “coming of age” and dealing with his anger at his father’s death. Ratner (finally!) started to shine in this section when he wrote about regular experiences of growing up (i.e. awkward encounters with girls and Leo opening his college letters). I started to think I could like the book, but then he’d go off the rails again. The character development (mostly of Leo) is a bit better here, but resulted in a somewhat dislikable personality. Leo is one angry soul! Part 3 was my favorite – Leo and Mack attempt to mend their tempestuous relationship on a long road trip. The writing flowed and Ratner had some fantastic descriptions (i.e. L.A. is “just a bunch of ghosts of things that were supposed to be famous but looked like a gas station”) that gave me faith in him as a writer. It was almost like he stopped trying too hard and just let the story flow naturally. And, I finally started to really understand the dynamic between Leo and Mack and why Leo could never be truly happy with himself. I wish the whole book had been like the third section, but it did make me interested to read some of Ratner’s other work, even if this one wasn’t my favorite. Despite not recommending this particular book because it took me far too long to like it, I’m going to keep my eye on this author.

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Book Review: Sutton

September 7, 2013 Books to Read, Fiction, Historical Fiction 0

SuttonSutton by J.R. Moehringer
Historical Fiction (Released September, 2012)
386 Pages
Bottom Line: Read it.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Purchased

Plot Summary 

Willie Sutton, the notorious Depression-era bank robber who was on the FBI’s first ever Most Wanted List, is released from prison on Christmas Eve and takes a newspaper reporter and photographer on a trip down memory lane.

My Thoughts

Sutton contains lots of action that you would expect from a story about a bank robber – two of his escapes from maximum security prison left me wondering if he was the inspiration for Andy Dufresne’s breakout from Shawshank State Penitentiary. 

But, Willie Sutton wasn’t your average bank robber – he seriously studied his craft, was an avid reader, fancied himself a “right guy,” and was considered somewhat of a folk hero by much of the general public. Moehringer probably portrayed Sutton as a much better guy than he actually was, but it was great for the book. 

Sutton is not just driven by a good story, there is a pleasant rhythm to Moehringer’s writing style – short sentences, pared down language, and spot on dialogue (especially Sutton’s).  This one is going on my Books for Guys List.

Book Review: State of Wonder

September 5, 2013 Books to Read, Fiction 0

State of WonderState of Wonder
by Ann Patchett, Fiction (Released June, 2011)
Bottom Line: Read it.
Summary: Dr. Marina Singh is sent to the Amazon to gather information on the mysterious death of a colleague and the status of a fellow doctor’s (Dr. Annick Swenson) groundbreaking research with the Lakashi tribe, where the women give birth well into their seventies.
My Thoughts: People had been telling me to read this book for awhile and I kept procrastinating because I thought Patchett’s “much acclaimed” Bel Canto was one of those “literary” darlings that was actually pretty boring. What a mistake! I loved this book! The implications of Dr. Swenson’s research are mind-blowing to think about in a “what if” scenario for real life. And, reading about the Lakashi tribe reminded me a bit of Born to Run (minus the long distance running, of course). Patchett does a great job of enveloping you in this remote, intriguing, but dangerous world. State of Wonder is on my Book Club Recommendations List.

Book Review: Crossing to Safety

September 2, 2013 Books to Skip, Classics, Fiction 0

Crossing to Safety was the selection for my Book Club’s August meeting. 

Crossing to SafetyCrossing to Safety
by Wallace Stegner, Fiction (Released 1987)

Bottom Line: Skip it.
Summary: The story of Larry and Sally Morgan and Charity and Sid Lang’s lifelong friendship, which began during Larry and Sid’s teaching jobs at the University of Wisconsin in the 1930’s.
My Thoughts: I feel like this has unintentionally been the summer of reading about friendship for me – with The Interestings, A Dual Inheritance, and now this one! This book reminded me of a bell curve – I liked the middle, but not the beginning or the end. I thought the first chapter, which actually talks about the end of the story, was completely confusing. I couldn’t tell where they were or why they were there. However, it did set the stage for the big suspenseful element in an otherwise character-driven story (how and when did Sally injure her legs?). Following the first chapter, the story reverts to chronological order with how the Langs and Morgans meet at Wisconsin and are instantly drawn to each other. This part also begins the themes of friendship and relationship dynamics that drive the story. The Langs both come from a pressure-filled world of inherited wealth and the Morgans from more humble backgrounds where Larry’s father told him to “do what you like to do. It’ll probably turn out to be what you do best.”. These different backgrounds will play a big part in the Morgans’ and Langs’ relationship dynamics throughout the book. You can also begin to see the power imbalance that characterizes the Langs’ marriage and how that affects the dynamics between both couples. “Part II” of the book focuses on the Morgans’ long stay at Battell Pond, Charity’s family’s compound in Vermont. I loved this part of the book as it was all about the power of family (especially extended family that “swarmed like termites”) and the closeness that can result from having a family gathering spot. Finally, there is a section where both couples live in Florence, and it was my least favorite. It reads like the travel journal of someone who is obsessed with checking every possible historical site off his/her “to do” list. There’s not much description about the places they visit and even less focus on the relationship dynamics, which are the truly interesting part of this book. The ending is fitting given the relationship dynamics at play, but I was getting bored of it all by that point and just wanted to be finished with the book. Despite liking some things about Crossing to Safety (the middle of the story and Stegner’s writing style, even though it was a bit more pretentious than the simple writing I’m usually drawn to), they just weren’t enough to recommend reading it.

Book Review: Shantaram

August 30, 2013 Books to Read, Fiction 0

ShantaramShantaram: A Novel
by Gregory David Roberts, Fiction (Released September, 2004)

Bottom Line: Read it…but saddle up for a long one.
Summary: An Australian convict escapes maximum security prison to Bombay, where he finds friendship, love, and an unbelievable amount of adventure.
My Thoughts: The amazing thing about this book is that Lin’s (the Australian escaped convict) experiences are said to be largely autobiographical, while the characters and dialogue are fiction. If even a quarter of the things that happened to this guy are true, it’s one heck of a story that takes you to a Bombay slum, into the inner workings of a local Mafia Council, and to Afghanistan during the war with the Russians. Shantaram is a love letter to Bombay, but Roberts does not shy away from covering its dark side (corruption, squalor, a slave trade, drug culture, and an entrenched Mafia). He portrays the “dark side” elements almost with endearment…like they’re offbeat quirks that add to the city’s charm. Lin’s lovable friend, Prabaker, steals the show with his hilarious broken English…I’m not sure if his humor is intentional or not, but it’s funny nonetheless. My one criticism is that Roberts often waxes philosophical and the language he uses when writing these unnecessary sections is completely over the top. Shantaram is going on my Books for Guys and Time to Kill lists.