The International Thriller Writers “FaceOff”

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Kangaroo Skin Boot

I spent much of today driving between Spring and the little town I grew up in but left for good way back in 1972. It’s a round-trip of about four and one-half hours that I hardly every make anymore, but my brother-in-law operates a little shoe shop down there that I depend on to keep my boots in good repair so I still need to make the drive at least once a year. And since my two favorite pairs of boots (a pair of the softest kangaroo-skin ropers imaginable and a pair of Mexican-style leather cowboy boots) were ready for pick-up, this was the day to hit the road.

I really don’t mind the drive, although the fog was especially thick this morning just before daybreak, because I always make sure to have an audible book or two with me to help kill the time. One of the ones I brought along today, FaceOff, was produced as a fundraiser by the International Thriller Writers group in 2014, and is based on a rather brilliant premise: compile eleven short stories, each one co-written by a pair of the group’s more prominent members. The icing on this cake is that each writer agreed to feature his own most “beloved character” in a head-to-head meeting with the other writer’s most beloved character.

51ibw2l6nul-_sx326_bo1204203200_There is, for example, a story co-written by Dennis Lehane and Michael Connelly in which the Patrick Kensie and Harry Bosch characters work together to solve simultaneously a cold case and a current child-kidnapping case. Another story, this one co-written by Ian Rankin and Peter James, features Scottish detective John Rebus and Jame’s Brighton detective Roy Grace (along with each of the men’s sidekicks) working together to verify a man’s supposed death-bed confession.

I listened to the first two discs today – encompassing three stories – and enjoyed each of the stories. It is particular fun to watch two fictional detectives I’m already familiar with work together to solve a crime, so the Lehane/Connelly story is my favorite so far. Other FaceOff collaborations include:

R.L. Stine / Lincoln Child                              M.J. Rose / D.D. Warren

Steve Martini / Linda Fairstein                   Jeffery Deaver / John Sandford

Heather Graham / F. Paul Wilson              Steve Berry / James Rollins

Raymond Khoury /Linwood Barclay          Lee Child / Joseph Finder

John Lescroart / T. Jefferson Parker

I plan to feature the book’s Dennis Lehane / Michael Connelly story in my Short Story Saturday feature this weekend, so be looking for that post in a couple of days.

All the Hoopla About “Hoopla” – It’s True!

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Have you guys all heard the hoopla about Hoopla yet?  No matter how much I try (and how much I pride myself) on keeping up with the latest in online apps and technology, it seems that I’m surprised at least once a month by something that rocks my limited little world.  It happened today when I was browsing my library’s website in search of a Michael Dirda book I’d seen referenced elsewhere earlier this morning.  All of a sudden, I notice a little icon next to the book title that said simply “Download.”

Well, who could resist pushing that to see what might happen.  You mean no waiting lines of several weeks is involved…well, sign me up.

Unfortunately/fortunately, nothing much happened – or so I thought.  I was redirected to something called hoopladigital.com and told that I could check out this particular audiobook immediately – and get this, seven more items this month – if I just got off my butt and signed up via my library name and card number.  I did that, and less than five minutes later I was listening to  Browsings by Michael Dirda.

1605988448-01-_sx142_sy224_sclzzzzzzz_(The best part is that I started listening on my PC but couldn’t listen for long because I had to run an errand by noon.  I found the Hoopla app for my iPhone, downloaded it, and signed on to the site via the new app.  And, because the app remembered exactly where I had left off the audiobook on my PC, I was able to listen to it, via a bluetooth hookup to my car radio, the whole time I was on the road.  Yes, I LOVE Hoopla.)

But wait, because it gets even better.  Not only are audiobooks available; there are e-books, movies, music, comics, and television shows just waiting for you.  Now granted, there aren’t a ton of titles, but there are some relatively popular ones waiting to be snapped up before Hoopla pulls them from the virtual stacks.  For instance, there are audiobooks like Go Set a Watchman, Girl on a Train, A Man Called Ove, and American Gods; movies like The Giver, St. Vincent, and Parkland; e-books like Crazy Horse and Custer and Toddlers Are A**holes; comics like Saga, Suicide Squad, and Yuge; music like Hamilton, Suicide Squad, and Monkees 50; and television shows like Inspector Lewis, The Librarians, and Small Island. 

How are you going to beat that?

So if this is new to you, do check with your local library system to see if your library card grants you the keys to this treasure chest. You may be as pleasantly surprised as I was…and if not, why didn’t one of you tell me about this?

The Cartel

The only time most Americans think about Mexico’s drug cartel is when the violence crosses the Rio Grande and claims the lives of one or two American citizens.  Well, shame on us, because other than those rare moments when they spill blood here, do we even consider the reality of what Mexicans have been living through for at least the last two decades.  When it comes to controlling drug traffic and territories, everyone is fair game to the resulting violence: family members, newspaper reporters, teachers, women, children, policemen, the innocent and the guilty, alike.  And, worst of all, like their terrorist cousins on the other side of the world, the gangs now capture the shootings, explosions, and decapitations on video for the entire world to see.  Don Winslow’s The Cartel schools us on just how horrible the situation along the U.S./Mexican border really is today – and why so many Mexicans cross that border to escape the mayhem.   
Sometime Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agent Art Keller learned all about the cartel from the inside.  Keller, half-Mexican himself, has known reigning drug kingpin Adán Barrera since the two were children.  The onetime close friends, though, are now mortal enemies, and each has sworn to put the other in his grave.  As The Cartel begins Keller is content with the new life and identity he has created for himself on the U.S. side of the river.  He knows that Barrera is looking for him, but Keller is surprised when his old DEA boss finds him first and presses him to rejoin the fight to destroy the cartel. 
The battle is on – and what a battle it turns out to be.  Over the next several hundred pages, Winslow follows the bloody evolution of a drug cartel coming apart at the seams as one drug lord after another falls in a pool of blood to his successor.  No one is safe; no one can be trusted; and no one is going to live long enough to become an old man.  The hell of it, though, is that they will take thousands and thousands of Mexicans down with them.
Don Winslow
This 19-CD audiobook clocks in at more than twenty-three hours of listening time, so finding an expert reader has to have been a high priority for its producers – a goal they met admirably by hiring Ray Porter for the job.  Porter’s mastery of accents, voices, and vocal inflections makes it easy for listeners to distinguish between the book’s many characters and their complicated relationships, something that audio readers will appreciate more and more as the book progresses. 

Bottom Line: The Cartel is a brutal crime thriller intimately based on the research that Don Winslow did on the Mexican drug cartel.  Its audiobook version is the perfect choice for the next extended road trip you take, just be forewarned that it is not a story for little ears.  It’s an ugly old world down there. 

"Do audio books help or harm literature?"

I listen to very few audio books these days (only one so far in 2015), but I find the related question asked by Claire Armitstead in her Guardian column interesting.  As the column banner phrases it, the question boils down to this:

Reading with your ears: do audio books help or harm literature?

In other words, do audio books leave the “reader” with a better understanding of a book’s contents or are audio books distracting enough to distort a book’s meaning?

From the article comes varying opinions:

If you believe the literary critic Harold Bloom, it is. “Deep reading really demands the inner ear as well as the outer ear,” he told the New York Times. “You need the whole cognitive process, that part of you which is open to wisdom. You need the text in front of you.”

…and this,

Neil Gaiman dismissed this on his blog as “just snobbery and foolishness”, adding: “I don’t believe there are books I’ve never ‘read’ because I have only heard them, or poems I’ve not experienced because I’ve only heard the poets read them. Actually, I believe that if the writer is someone who can communicate well aloud (some writers can’t), you often get much more insight into a story or poem by hearing it.” 

As for myself, I’ve more than once turned to the audio version of a book that was proving to be a particularly unpleasant read or so long that I feared I would never get around to finishing it.  I’ve even read books by alternating the audio and printed versions until I was done.  And not once, have I ever considered that a book read via audio (as long, that is, as it is an unabridged version) should not count as a book “read.”  


Claire Armitstead

But the bigger question is whether or not the audio book and the printed book are really the same book.  Again from my personal experience, I can say that on more than one occasion the narrater/actor of the audio book was talented enough to change positively my opinion of a book whose printed version I disliked.  So, no, I do not believe that an audio book is necessarily the same book that its printed version is.  Whether that’s a good thing or not, I can’t say.  I do know that when reviewing such a book I always include a statement to the effect that my rating may just be based more on the reader than on the book…or at least more heavily weighted toward the reader’s talent than to the author’s.  

OK.  What do you guys think about this?  Take a look at the linked column because I’ve only just touched on the number of possible questions concerning the relationship of audio books to literature.  You might just want to answer some questions or points I did not mention here.

Is Listening to a Book the Same as Reading One?

Although this video seems to be aimed more at the parents of young readers than at adult readers themselves, most of the benefits of audio books listed here apply equally well to readers of all ages.

Jon Scieszka, author of the Frank Einstein series, and Brian Biggs (illustrator of the books) note that:

  • Listening to audio books help readers learn how to pronounce words correctly, 
  • Young readers can successfully listen to books at two entire grade levels higher than that at which they can read,
  • Readers learn about the pacing of stories by listening to them read aloud,
  • Young readers have a 76% higher comprehension rate when listening rather than reading for themselves, and that
  • Young readers are 67% more motivated to finish an audio book than they are to complete a written one.
I have listened to audiobooks for years, most often during my compute to the office and back (now down to four mornings a week).  But I also depend on audio books to keep me entertained and awake during the long driving days I rack up every summer following my other hobbies: music festivals, baseball, Civil War battle sites, and visiting author homes/museums around the country.  I generally drive around 3,000 miles a summer doing those things, so I have a bunch of hours available to listen to someone read to me.

But for a long time, I did not consider listening to a book to be equivalent to reading one.  It just felt too easy, more akin to watching a math teacher work a problem on the blackboard than working that same problem out for myself.  I was always a little embarrassed, in fact, to admit that my only experience with a book (pick a book, any book) was via audio; it felt too much like cheating.

This year, though, I have had a change of heart.  Probably, because I’ve learned what genres work best for me in audio format, I have come to fully embrace audio books as part of my regular reading (even down to keeping track of the pages I have “read” in audio).  I believe that my comprehension of certain books really is higher via audio.  That was a surprise. And, God knows, there are dozens of words that I have read in books hundreds of times each that I’m still not sure how to pronounce at loud.  Often, when one of those words pops up in an audio book, I’ve paused to repeat it half a dozen times before moving on.

So what do you think?  Is listening to a book the same as reading one?  Does it count?

Driving Mark Twain

Everywhere I have driven during the last six or seven weeks, Sam Clemens has been riding shotgun and entertaining me with stories from his life.  And how that man can talk.  Even when he repeats himself, the details of his stories sometimes differ to the point of casting them into a whole new light.  And since we have a few friends in common (Grant, Sherman, Huck Finn, and Tom Sawyer, among them), Sam never bores me.  We even share an innate mistrust of politicians (you should hear old Sam go on about Teddy Roosevelt).  Mr. Clemens is great company and I will miss him when he’s done with all his stories.

But that won’t happen for a while…perhaps, another four or five weeks…because I’m only about fifteen percent of the way through the audio version of the second volume of the Autobiography of Mark Twain.  Volume one comprises 20 CDs (the first of which will be of little or no interest to most readers, I suspect), and Volume two adds another 21 discs.
As read by Grover Gardner (who was named one of the “Best Voices of the Century” by AudioFile magazine), the books offer a wonderful opportunity to spend some one-on-one, quality time with Mark Twain.  I highly recommend this approach to anyone who might already have the set on their TBR stacks.

Combined, the books total 41 discs and 934 pages of autobiographical material.  Taken in the relatively small chunks that encompass my commuting time and my errand-running time, they are wonderful.  


Telegraph Avenue

I do not “read” a lot of audio books, maybe six or seven a year, but I have long believed that the “reader” of an audio book is the most influential factor in determining whether the experience will be an enjoyable one – or not.  No matter the author or the quality of the writing, an audiobook’s narrator still has the ultimate power to make it or break it.  I have, in fact, on a few occasions, junked an audio book in favor of a printed copy because I had grown bored with the voice droning on and on for what started to seem like forever (remember, some audio books total more than 20 CDs and require close to 25 hours listening time). 
This being the case, audio book publishers should be lining up at the door of Clarke Peters because, as he proves with Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue, this man is good.  Peters has such a way of breathing life into characters, varying voices and accents, and making it all sound so alive, that I hated to see the book end – despite it being almost 19 hours long.
Telegraph Avenueis as much about a place, the Brokeland neighborhood between Berkeley and Oakland, as it is about the people who live there.  It is the summer of 2004, and things are about to change for the book’s central characters.  Archy Stallings and Nat Jaffe, one of them black, the other white, are best friends and business partners who run Brokeland Records, one of a dying breed of record shops that still specialize in reselling classic vinyl record albums from the past.  The record store, being as much a neighborhood hangout as a business, attracts a regular crowd of hipsters, amateur philosophers, local politicians, and old men who remember when the building was home to the best barbershop around.   But now, the business, already on shaky financial ground, is being threatened by a former NFL great who hopes to open one of his Dogpile megastores just up the street from Brokeland Records – an event that the record shop cannot hope to survive.
Clarke Peters Doing His Magic
Brokeland Records is not a business that will ever make its owners rich, so Archy and Nat depend on their wives, Gwen and Aviva, to help make ends meet.  The women are midwives in a respected, and successful, partnership of their own that they call Berkeley Birth Partners.  Gwen and Aviva love what they do and have no shortage of clients, but they are suffering a professional crisis of their own and the future of Berkeley Birth Partners is in jeopardy.
Telegraph Avenueis a big book, one filled with numerous supporting characters with stories of their own.  Among them are Archy’s father, a former blaxploitation film star on the hustle; Titus Joyner, the son Archy did not know existed before he showed up on Archy’s doorstep; Julius Jaffe, Nat’s sometimes gay, sometimes not-gay son; Gibson Goode, ex-NFL superstar quarterback and “fifth-richest black man in America; and a famous jazz musician whose wake is held in the record shop, open casket and all.  There is a lot going on here, so much that readers might be distracted from the main storyline at times, but it is one hell of a story – especially if you let Clarke Peters read it to you.

New Audio Book: Telegraph Avenue

Serendipity strikes again…

I’m starting the audio book version of Michael Chabon’s freshly minted Telegraph Avenue tomorrow morning on my commute to the office – and today, I received an email that includes a link to brief portions of it being read aloud by Clarke Peters.  Peters has a wonderful voice and a great delivery, plus he seems to really have enjoyed putting the book to “tape.”

Clarke Peters, you are a very lucky man to have enough talent to get paid for doing something that seems to be so much fun for you.  Now, I can’t wait to get started.

Here’s the YouTube video:

Sleep No More

Sleep No More is my first exposure to anything written by Greg Iles and, in fairness to him, I want to stress that I experienced the novel in audio book format, not as a printed version.  Although the book’s narrator did grow on me over the course of the book’s ten CDs, his lack of preparation irritated me a number of times.  For instance, the man had no idea that Schlumberger is not pronounced to rhyme with hamburger.  Schlumberger is a French oil field service company, one of the largest in the world, and to hear its name mispronounced a dozen or so times in quick succession became a major distraction.  In addition, several of the book’s characters are from Louisiana and, in dealing with them, the narrator managed to mispronounce a city or two from that state and speak in one of the least authentic Cajun accents I have ever heard.
So remember that I am reviewing an audio book here – not simply a Greg Iles novel – and that one point has been deducted from my rating based on the quality of the audio work.
The storyline of Sleep No More is an intriguing one that kept me guessing for a long time whether I was reading a straight crime novel or a Stephen Kingish horror novel.  Its principle character is John Waters, who while attending the University of Mississippi had a passionate (and destructive) affair with a young woman who became Miss Mississippi while they were involved.  Sadly, just a few years later, Mallory Candler was raped and murdered in New Orleans.  Before her death, however, her bizarre behavior almost cost John Waters his life.
Years later, John Waters is married, has a little girl, and is making a good living as a Mississippi oil wildcatter.  His is a risky business, but he has been successful more times than not.  All is well in John’s world until a beautiful young woman approaches him on the soccer field after one of his daughter’s matches.  The woman, Eve Sumner, leaves John with a knowing look and the same whispered word that he and Mallory exchanged when they wanted to sneak away together.  He is spooked by the encounter and cannot stop thinking about it. 
Greg Iles
Sleep No More is a better mystery than it is a horror novel.  Its best moments come when John is trying to determine exactly what is happening to him, whether or not he can trust his partner and best friend, and his fight to stay out of prison.  The horror aspect of the novel is not nearly so satisfying, at least in part because of the lack of closure provided by the book’s final pages.   
Rated at: 3.0

Full Dark, No Stars

I have never been bashful about expressing my disdain for about 80% of the authors who dominate the big bestseller lists, having at times been particularly hard on the James Patterson factory and the novels of one Mr. Dan Brown.  That has led several people to question my general fondness for the books of Stephen King, a writer whose work they characterize as a guilty pleasure of my own.  Well, I have been a fan of King’s work ever since the Fourth of July holiday of 1980 that I spent reading the first book of his I had ever heard of: The Shining.  I went on to spend much of the rest of that month catching up on his earlier books.
Over the years, my opinion of Stephen King’s writing has changed somewhat.  Where once I was most eager to get my hands on his latest novel, these days it is his new short stories and novellas that I most look forward to reading.  I have come to believe that the novella is really King’s forte and not, despite the fact that he has written some very successful ones, the novel.  Full Dark, No Stars makes me even more certain of that.
Full Dark, No Starsis a collection of over five hundred pages encompassing three novellas and one short story.  One or two of the stories being told remind me, for the first time in a while, of two of King’s best (and best known) novellas: Shawshank Redemption and The Body.  No so coincidentally, this pair also led to two of the best received movies ever produced from King’s work (The Body was re-titled Stand by Me for its movie version). 
“1922,” a grim confession by Wilf James to the bloody murder of his wife that he convinced his teenage son to help him accomplish and cover-up, opens the book.  The youngster, deeply in love with the girl from the next farm, is terrified that he might be uprooted and moved to the city as his mother is insisting upon.  Wilf plays on his son’s emotions to gain his trust but starts a chain of events that will ultimately leave him regretting much more than his wife’s murder.  The outstanding character development and feel for the period King invokes in this one make it, I think, the overall strongest story in the collection. 
“Big Driver” is a revenge story that will keep you on the edge of your seat.  When Tess, author of a successful series of bloodless, cozy mysteries is brutally raped, beaten, and left for dead by what she discovers is a serial killer, she must decide what to do next.  Using her mystery writing skills (bloodless as they have been up to now), Tess comes up with a plan she hopes will cover all the bases – and then, things get complicated.
Next up, is the book’s lone short story (about 45 pages), “Fair Extension.”  Perhaps the darkest story of the lot, this one will make most readers wonder what they would do given the same circumstances and choices.  Mr. Elvid offers Dave, a terminal cancer sufferer who is fast running out of time, the chance to rid himself of his cancer and live a healthy life for another 20 years.  The catch?  Dave must choose someone to take on the burden of his ill health and other bad luck – can he do it?  Will he?
The last story, “A Good Marriage,” visits what might happen if a woman happily married for almost 30 years were to discover that her husband has been hiding a horrible secret from her the entire time.  By the end of the story, Darcy Anderson, facing just such a predicament, learns as much about herself as she learns about her husband – and the last few pages of this one are the best section of the whole book.
Whether you call them long stories or novellas, you will not easily forget the four tales in Full Dark, No Stars.

Visit this Scribner link for a whole lot more about Full Dark, No Stars.
Rated at: 4.0

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We the Animals

I first became aware of We the Animals, Justin Torres’s debut novel, late last October when I attended a session presented at the 2011 Texas Book Festival by Torres and two other first-time novelists, Chad Harbach (The Art of Fielding) and Amy Waldman (The Submission).  I was impressed enough with each of them to walk away from the session wanting to read all three of the books presented that day.  We the Animals completes that reading cycle for me.  Different as they are, all three novels turned out to be interesting, worthwhile reads that I would probably have otherwise missed, so I am grateful for having had the opportunity to hear their authors speak about them that day.
If I remember correctly, Torres stated in Austin that We the Animals began as a group of individual short pieces, and that it was only later that he realized that he had the makings of a novel on his hands.  By stringing the stories together in chronological order, he has produced that novel (although its brevity makes it as much akin to a novella as to a novel, I think). 
Justin Torres
We the Animals is the story of three brothers who grow up in upstate New York alongside their white mother and Puerto Rican father, two people who have plenty of growing up of their own to do.  The boys’ Brooklyn-born mother became pregnant for the first time at age 14 and her baby’s father was not much older.  As the novel unfolds, it can be difficult to remember that Ma and Paps are still in their twenties as they try to cope with poverty and the challenge of raising three young boys together.  The couple’s passionate relationship creates a family dynamic that will severely test the strength and character of their children.  Fortunately for the boys, they bond in a way that forges a unit stronger than the sum of its individual parts.  
The stories told in We the Animals vary from laugh-out-loud funny ones to tear-jerking sad ones, but taken as a whole, they paint the picture of three boys who somehow thrive despite the hands-off approach by which they are mostly being raised.  They have each other.  They adore their mother and, despite often fearing him, they love their father.  One feels good about their chances – and then comes the book’s jarring last chapter, a piece of the story that changes everything before it.
Rated at: 4.0  

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Run

The opening segment of Ann Patchett’s 2007 novel, Run, is so beautifully written that it made me wish for a whole novel focused on that period of Bernadette Doyle’s family history. That segment recounts the origin of an old statue that has been handed down through several generations of one family to the daughter who most closely resembles the face of the statue – only to finally land in a section of the family having only three sons whose father refuses to pass it on to a family branch that actually includes a daughter.  This little statue, so prominent in the book’s opening pages, will play a key role in its final ones, as well.
Bernadette and Bernard Doyle want to fill their Boston home with children but they are able to produce only one son, Sullivan, before they turn to adoption to add to their family.  The couple ends up adopting two black brothers, one barely a toddler, the other a newborn, whom they rename Teddy and Tip in homage to the state’s political heritage.  After Bernadette’s tragic death, Doyle will raise the boys on his on, all the while seriously hoping that at least one of them will become President of the United States someday.
All goes to plan until the snowy evening that Tip’s life is saved by the woman who pushes him from the path of a car about to crush him.  Sadly, this woman (called Tennessee, “like the state”) takes the full impact of the vehicle and, when she is rushed to the hospital for emergency treatment, her eleven-year-old daughter, Kenya, is left behind.  What Kenya gradually reveals to the Doyles when they take her home with them that night, will change all of their lives forever.
Ann Patchett
Runcovers a lot of ground.  Its major themes involve family (particularly interracial ones), class, poverty, social responsibility, religion, and politics.  It is filled with memorable characters, but I suspect that most readers will choose young Kenya as their favorite of the lot.  If the book has a real weakness, it is that several of the characters seem too good to be true – even Sullivan, the black sheep of the family, who wanders back to Boston on the very night that Kenya enters the household.  It should be noted also that, while Patchett makes a valiant effort to contrast Kenya’s home life to that of the Doyle boys, her version of Kenya’s life in the ghetto of government housing fails to give a clear sense of the very real horrors and dangers of such an environment.
That said, Run is an enjoyable novel, one that probably generated much discussion in 2007 book club meetings.  Despite its subject, it is a relatively light read that can be enjoyed by adults and YA readers alike.
Rated at: 4.0

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This Book Will Save Your Life

The audio book version of This Book Will Save Your Life (by A.M. Homes) benefits from the fine reading given it by Scott Brick.  That Brick manages to give so many eccentric characters a distinctly recognizable tone of voice is, in fact, remarkable.  And, because these characters are the best thing the novel has going for it, Brick’s contribution is particularly important to one’s overall perception of the novel.
The book opens just as Richard Novak is suffering through a life-changing experience.  He is on the phone with a rather blasé 911 operator who insists on methodically interviewing him about the pain he his experiencing rather than taking his word that he needs immediate help.  The pain, so bad that Richard is even unsure precisely where he hurts, does ultimately land him in a Los Angeles emergency room.  The Richard Novak that emerges from that emergency room will not be the same man who entered it.
Prior to his painful reawakening, Richard was content with his life of relative ease and isolation.  He lived alone, working the stock market from his expensive home, totally dependent upon the services of a daily housekeeper/cook and personal trainer to keep him going.  The problem, as he sees it now, is that he is close to no one, including the teenage son he barely knows. 
A.M. Homes

Richard’s need to reconnect with humanity will lead him to a series of bizarre experiences involving those he encounters over the next few days.  Among Richard’s new intimates are: a Hollywood star who seems to need a new friend as badly as Richard; a young mother whose family completely takes her for granted; a cheerful donut-shop owner/philosopher; and the J.D. Salinger-type writer who happens to live next door to Richard’s Malibu beach house rental.  As he reaches out to help whatever strays he encounters along the way, Richard suffers through the turbulence of trying to reclaim a relationship with his son just when his house begins to slide into a hillside sinkhole.

This Book Will Save Your Life works well as a tongue-in-cheek satire of the modern California lifestyle.  Richard’s sincere attempt to change his life for the better makes him an easily likable character, as are many of the characters to whom he attaches himself.  My one quarrel with the book’s plot is the ambiguous ending that comes before the book resolves its most climactic scene.  I am not one who is amused by the task of creating his own ending for a novel, instead believing that to be the author’s job.  This Book Will Save Your Life had me right up to the book’s last page – where it lost my affection and caused me to lower its rating.
Rated at: 3.0

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The Man from Beijing

Henning Mankell is best known for having created fictional detective Kurt Wallander, a character I am familiar with via a couple of BBC adaptations of Mankell’s work.  Wallander is typical of the genre, I suppose.  He is another of those broken down, older detectives whose personal life is in ruins but who gamely carries on with catching the local bad guys.  It is all very dark and moody, but I almost always take to that type of atmosphere and character and that is what I expected to get from The Man from Beijing.
And, at first, that iswhat I got.  The story opens at the scene of a spectacular mass murder in one of Sweden’s most isolated little villages.  All but three of the village’s twenty-two inhabitants have been brutally slaughtered in just a few hours and police are struggling to identify either a motive for the murders or a suspect.  When Judge Birgitta Roslin, who is on a two-week medical leave from the bench, realizes that this is the same village her mother was raised in, she decides to go there for a personal look.  Once there, and sensing that the police investigation is headed in the wrong direction, Roslin begins her own – an investigation that leads her to believe that a Chinese assassin is responsible for the deaths.
Butting heads with the local police, however, proves to be rather fruitless, so Roslin continues to nose around on her own.  Her amateur investigation brings her all the way to China where her efforts attract the attention of the wrong people.  Just happy to escape Beijing in one piece, Roslin returns to Sweden only to find that her Chinese troubles have followed her home.
Henning Mankell

Henning Mankell had the makings of a snappy crime thriller on his hands if he had only stuck with this basic plot and characters.  Even the long flashback dealing with San, a Chinaman kidnapped to work on America’s transcontinental railroad was interesting (and directly pertained to the plot), although, for the most part, very dryly narrated.  By the time Mankell got back to present day Sweden, I was beginning to get a little hazy on some of the murder details and the Swedish characters.  I managed to get myself back on track only to find that Mankell had a long, boring harangue in store for his readers.  The author managed to move the side plot along eventually, but along the way he had one of his main characters read segments of political speeches that in real time were said to last four or five hours.  As I listened to Mankell defend the likes of Chairman Mao and Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, I began to understand how the character’s captive audience must have felt.

This is a good book gone very, very bad.  It reads more as an excuse for Mankell to preach his own leftist political views than as a book to be enjoyed by mystery/thriller fans.  Had The Man from Beijing been properly edited, it could have been a gripping police procedural about a stunning crime.  As is, it is a tremendous bore about a stunning crime.
Rated at: 1.5

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Freedom

By the time Freedomwas published in August 2010, it had been nine years since Jonathan Franzen’s immensely popular (and National Book Award winning) novel, The Corrections, made its own debut.  Everyone, of course, wondered whether Freedom would compare favorably to The Corrections.  It turns out that this 576-page (or 19-CD audio book) soap opera, while it does exhibit flashes of brilliance, does not match up well to its predecessor.
Freedom is the story of Patty and Walter Berglund and their two children.  The Berglunds consider themselves leaders and trendsetters in their St. Paul community, a neighborhood of mostly like-minded people determined to leave the planet in better shape than they found it.  They eat right, recycle madly, take a hands-on approach to raising their children, and practice what they preach.  Walter and Patty are, in fact, particularly proud that Walter earns the family income as an environmental lawyer. 
But all is not as it seems and, when family members begin to make one bad choice after the other, the Berglunds fall apart so quickly that everything they believe about themselves suddenly seems to be a bad joke on them.   Suddenly, Walter is working for a nasty coal company in its efforts to scrape the top off a scenic West Virginia mountaintop, their son is living next door with his high school girlfriend, and Patty is waging a ludicrous war on the evil Republican right-wing redneck family sheltering him.  It is little wonder then that Patty and Walter begin to look elsewhere for what they no longer have at home.
Freedom works well when Franzen first circles back to explain who Patty and Walter Berglund are and how they became the naively idealistic couple we see at the beginning of the book.  Each is the product of a less-than-ideal upbringing in which they were the least favored child in the family.  Patty, a superb, scholarship-earning basketball player, was largely ignored by her mother and scarred by her father’s conscious failure to protect her from harm.  Walter, from a much poorer family, faced similar problems when his mother failed to protect him from an abusive father who seemed to care only for Walter’s brothers.  Patty and Walter are determined to do a better job with their own children.  Throw Walter’s best friend (the man Patty still wishes she had married), rock star wannabe Richard Katz, into the mix, and anything might happen to this seemingly perfect family.
The problem is that Franzen does not know when to quit.  He creates interesting characters and situations, but spends as many pages detailing side issues such as strip-mining, overpopulation concerns, and the procurement of war materials in South America as he does on the book’s central storyline.  And it backfires because the more he reveals about these subplots, the less believable they become.  Too, David LeDoux, reader of the audio version of the book, does not help things by failing to differentiate between the voices and cadences of the various characters.  They all speak with the same voice and tone, even down to having the same irritating laugh.  This may, of course, be more a product of the writing than the reading, but it does become annoying – although I do believe that an audio version of the book is the only format I would have finished.
I am going to split the difference on this one and rate it a three because its good and bad points tend to offset each other.
Rated at: 3.0

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Slaughterhouse-Five or the Children’s Crusade: A Duty Dance with Death

I first read Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five as a very young man.  At the time, I was an avid fan of science fiction, especially those books featuring time travel, and that is what drew me to Slaughterhouse-Five.  As a science fiction novel, I thought it was pretty good, especially considering the amount of random time travel its main character, Billy Pilgrim, experiences in this relatively short novel.  The problem with my first-pass assessment of Slaughterhouse-Five, however, was that this is not simply a science fiction novel – and it should not be judged by the standards of that genre.  Even worse, I managed to ignore the novel’s message.
Vonnegut’s deceptively simple masterpiece is about life itself; it is about the futility and utter waste of warfare; it is about time, and the way that we perceive it; it is about fate and whether any of us really has any control over what happens to us next.  Poor Billy Pilgrim certainly had little to say about the course of his own life.  Swept up into World War II, where he is captured by the Germans almost as soon as he arrives, Billy will be held prisoner in Dresden’s Slaughterhouse-Five, from where he will survive the Allied firebombing that destroys the entire city.  He will be abducted by a crew of aliens from the planet Tralfamador and displayed in a zoo there along with the former porn star chosen as his mate.  He will become a successful optometrist, popular and respected in his community.  The only problem is that it all happens at the same time.
Billy Pilgrim has become “unstuck in time” and he never knows, from one instant to the next, when he will flash forward or backward to a different part of his lifetime.  It is all real, and it is always happening – simultaneously.  
Slaughterhouse-Five is generally considered to be a classic anti-war novel.  Even with that reputation, its message is subtle enough that it is possible to get so caught up in the rest of the story and its mechanics that the novel’s serious theme is only recognized some time after turning its final page.  This book is funny, even to the point of being absurd at times, but it is a serious piece of writing by an author with something serious to say about the foolishness of killing “enemies” by the thousands/millions at the behest of politicians who have failed at their own jobs. 
The effectiveness of Slaughterhouse-Five is compounded by the ease with which it can be read; Vonnegut has disguised a complex novel, one filled with thoughtful points, as some kind of comedic science fiction piece.  And, he makes it all look so easy.  (As does Ethan Hawke in his extraordinary reading of the novel.)

Saturday

Henry Perowne seems to have it all.  The neurosurgeon has a satisfying medical practice, two successfully raised adult children whose mother he still finds sexy, his dream car, and he lives in 4,000 square foot home in the heart of London (imagine what that must be worth).  Life has been good to him, and he has every reason to expect more of the same for a long time to come.  Henry, however, is about to receive one of those reality checks that life sometimes throws at even the best-prepared of us.
It all starts to come apart for him before daybreak on Saturday morning when, for a reason he cannot explain, Henry finds himself standing in front of his bedroom window just as a flaming airplane streaks across the sky on its way to an emergency Heathrow landing.  Because his first thoughts are of terrorism rather than mechanical failure, the sight reminds Henry how very different the post-9/11 world is from the world in which he raised his children and established his career.
Later, as he leaves the house to begin his day off, Henry has to make his way past thousands of protesters who are there to protest Britain’s decision to join the U.S. in its fast-approaching war against Iraq.  When he finds a policeman willing to let him save time by driving across a cordoned off section of road, Henry jumps at the chance – only to drive right into a minor fender-bender that will haunt him for the rest of his life.  The other driver, whom Henry is about to meet for the first time, will figure prominently in the book’s climax.
Saturday, though, is not a plot-driven book.  McEwan has, instead, invited his readers to spend a day inside the head of his main character, Henry Perowne.  Perowne is a relatively conservative man, much to the dismay, at times, of his daughter.  The two, for instance, vehemently disagree on the necessity and morality of the upcoming war with Iraq, even to the point of an argument that ends with her in tears.  We are witness to the strong bond between Henry and his son, one centered on their mutual love of American jazz, and to the pride that Henry takes in his wife’s professional successes.
But McEwan offers more than that.  We are given a glimpse into the mindset of a man who, now that he has made it, is finally beginning to wonder what drives the people he encounters at home, at the hospital, and during his leisure time.  Henry is a solitary man, dependent on no one, but he is about to find how unprepared he is when it comes to having the skills and instincts sometimes required if one is to survive in the real world, a world in which there is always someone willing to take what they want if one is too weak to stop them.
Ian McEwan is a master and a craftsman – in the positive sense, that he has constructed a novel here, layer by layer, which very subtly, almost stealthily, immerses the reader into the world he has created for them.  It is a world, a lifestyle, and a family, which I will long remember.
Rated at: 5.0

The Bone Garden

The Bone Garden, a standalone novel, is my first experience with a Tess Gerritsen book, but based upon this reading experience, it is unlikely to be my last.  The bulk of the novel is set in 1830s Boston and concerns what happens when a serial killer strikes that city- with flashes forward to modern day Boston and some of the descendants of those featured in the historical section of the story.
Julia Hamill, 38-years-old and freshly divorced from a jerk, is the new owner of an old Boston house that had been in the hands of the same family for well over one hundred years prior to her purchase of it.  Julia is starting to doubt how wise an investment she has made by purchasing a house needing so much maintenance, but she decides to start with cleaning up the neglected garden (where the previous homeowner’s body was found) behind the house. 
Already having dug up several large rocks from the ground, Julia is shocked to discover that what she believed to be just another rock in her way is really a human skull.  She is relieved, after authorities are called in to investigate, that the body she has unearthed dates back to the early decades of the 19th century.  Thus, begins Julia’s attempt, with the help of a relative of the home’s former owner, to discover the identity of the body and its connection to her new home.
At this point, Gerritsen shifts the novel’s locale to historical Boston, in particular to a medical school attached to one of the city’s larger hospitals.   Here the reader meets what are actually the book’s two main characters: Norris Marshall, a poor medical student barely able to stay in school, and Rose Connolly, a 17-year-old recent Irish immigrant whose older sister will die of “childbirth fever” in the hospital’s maternity ward.  When a killer, dubbed by the press the “West End Reaper,” begins to prey on those associated with the hospital and medical school, Norris and Julia will learn that only by watching out for each other are they likely to survive the Reaper experience.
The strength of The Bone Garden is its focus on the medical schools of the day, a period during which these schools were often willing to purchase dissecting cadavers from whomever showed up with one to sell them – no questions asked.  This was the age of grave robbing, a time during which freshly buried loved ones might disappear within hours of being buried, only to be used in some medical theater for the instruction of a few dozen medical students.  It was also a time when doctors and their students spread infection from one patient to the next by not washing their hands or medical instruments.  This was particularly dangerous in maternity wards attended by unwitting doctors as they examined one new mother after the other. 
As a thriller/mystery goes, The Bone Garden rates as pretty much average.  As historical fiction, it is a very affecting look at a time during which so many big city residents struggled to stay alive in conditions that are almost unbelievable today.

That Old Cape Magic

Richard Russo’s That Old Cape Magic begins and ends with weddings attended by many of the same people.  But, despite the overlap in the guest list, and the fact that the two weddings are barely one year apart, they could hardly have been more different. 
As the book begins, Jack Griffin and his wife, Joy, are making their separate ways to Cape Cod to attend the wedding of their daughter’s best friend.  Another university year has ended, and Jack, too impatient to wait one more day for Joy to finish up her administrative work at the school, has left for the Cape without her.  Technically, however, he is not alone since he carries his father’s ashes in the trunk of his car and plans to dispose of them somewhere along his route to the wedding. 
The Griffins, who have been married for more than three decades, have weathered lean times and tensions with the in-laws to carve out a rather comfortable existence for themselves.  They have, in fact, attained the lifestyle that Jack’s own parents always yearned for, but never achieved for themselves – all of it centered on their work at a respected liberal arts college in Connecticut.  For Jack, driving to Cape Cod for the wedding is a bit like coming home.  As a boy, he spent part of each summer vacationing with his parents on the Cape, and it was where he and Joy had honeymooned.  All things considered, Jack Griffin is satisfied with his life.
One short year later, Jack is driving to the coast of Maine for his daughter’s wedding, but much has changed.  He is still carrying his father’s ashes in the trunk, but this year his father’s urn has been joined by a second one containing the ashes of Jack’s mother.  Like last year, he and Joy are making their separate ways to the wedding – but this time each of them has brought along a date.  The flaws in their marriage, obvious during the first wedding weekend, have seemingly doomed it just one year later.
That Old Cape Magic is told from Jack Griffin’s perspective, the reader ensconced in Jack’s head for a series of flashbacks going all the way back to his boyhood.  Jack is an introspective man and, as he considers the events of his childhood and his relationship with his parents, the reader begins to understand Jack Griffin, the man.  He has reached a threshold in his life – his marriage seems over, his parents are dead, his only child has just married, he has been granted a leave of absence from the university, his Hollywood screenwriting job is not going well – and he has no idea what comes next.    
That Old Cape Magic might be one man’s story, but Jack Griffin’s contemporaries will easily identify with it and the realization that little things, given enough time, and occurring in the right combination, can ultimately chip away at one’s whole world.  Russo uses a good bit of humor (his daughter’s wedding rehearsal is genuinely hilarious) and over-the-top characters (Jack’s parents are unforgettable snobs of the first order), however, that make this one fun despite its rather somber theme.
Rated at: 5.0

Orfan

Jimmy Deane is simply destined to be an orphan – fate will have it no other way.  In the tradition of Charles Dickens, whose orphans are all larger than life and destined for spectacular experiences, Corie Skolnick presents Orfan, the story of one little baby boy who beat the odds stacked against him in ways that would make even Dickens proud.
If it were not bad enough that he would be born at a time when unwed pregnancies were still considered shocking, J.D.’s luck with adoptive parents would not prove to be the best in the world either.  It says a lot about J.D.’s childhood that his best friend and most consistent protector and mentor was the redneck Harley Davidson mechanic who lived in a rundown house next door to his grandmother’s own rundown Florida home. 
Gillis Lee Wainwright might be a redneck but the man has an innate sense of right and wrong that makes him the perfect man to fill in some of the gaps in young J.D.’s life.  Gillis provides J.D. with exactly the safe haven he needs to get him through the rough patches in his life – and J.D. (otherwise known as James Deane) has more than his share of those rough spots, the most spectacular being his amazingly hypocritical grandmother.
Orfan might be one boy’s story, but Skolnick uses it to skewer the world into which young J.D. is so callously tossed.  Along the way, as the reader follows J.D. from infancy to young adulthood, Skolnick tackles religious hypocrites and the television preachers they so often admire, racists and rednecks of various sorts, useless celebrities, and a society so willing to toss aside those who do not meet the standards set by the majority.
What makes Orfan so much fun, though, is how the author uses humor to make her most striking points – even when describing the most upsetting incidents or irritating characters in the book.  This is the perfect approach to telling a story about someone like J.D., a boy with so much patience and inborn understanding that he is willing to give everyone he meets the benefit of the doubt, occasionally even after they have done him repeated wrongs.
I should mention that I listened to the audio version of Orfan as read by the author in a presentation lasting over ten hours.  I was at first a bit uncomfortable with Skolnick’s cadence and reading style but it quickly grew on me and became an integral part of the Orfan experience.  (I still smile when I think about how she made J.D.’s spoken voice so eerily resemble that of the late Michael Jackson’s and I wonder whether she was consciously going for that effect.)  This one is fun.
Rated at: 4.0

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)