Tuesday, March 30, 2010

"Solar" by Ian McEwan. Writing = 5 stars; story/main character = 1-2 stars. I didn't like it.

I never expected to dislike a book that has such wonderful writing; it makes writing this review very difficult. The short answer is that I loved the writing and didn‘t like the story and the main character. If the plot had matched the quality of the writing, I’d give the book 5 stars and if the writing had matched the plot, I’d give it 1-2 stars. So I’m splitting the difference and giving it a 3. If you are not already a serious fan of the author, this is not the book to start on. Ardent fans of McEwan should be aware that this book may test the limits of your loyalty to his work, depending on how you feel about the plot and the main character. If you like the plot, you will probably love this book and if you are a big fan of Ian McEwan, you may at least enjoy it more than I did. I’ll let you know what I hated about the story and you can decide if this is the book for you.

Writing: On the positive side, Ian McEwan writes lovely prose. Even though I hated the story, I often had to stop and savor particularly exquisite passages of writing. For some people this will be enough. For me it was not.

Story/Character: The main reason I didn’t like the story is that I really didn’t like the main character. Michael Beard has few, if any, redeeming characteristics. At the beginning of the book his fifth marriage is falling apart. His wife is openly cheating on him and has moved into a separate bedroom. The reader can’t feel sorry for Beard because he has cheated on all his wives, including the present one:  he had 11 affairs during their four-year marriage.

In addition to being serially unfaithful, Beard is lazy and resting on his professional laurels. He won the Nobel Prize years (decades) ago and coasts from one figurehead appointment to another without doing any actual work. His only new work, on solar energy, is not even original. He steals ideas he once ignored from a younger scientist. Lastly, Beard is a glutton. Reading about his excess eating can make a reader nauseous. I wondered if McEwan was trying to make a political statement by having Beard, with his gluttony and self-centeredness, represent contemporary industrialized society’s consumption of fossil fuels.

The professional reviews have commented on the comedic or farcical element of the book but I didn’t find it particularly humorous. It is mildly amusing when Beard gives a speech that is virtually all plagiarized material but he is accused of borrowing from urban legend the only true things he said. And I experienced schadenfreude when Beard’s misbehaving “member” gets frozen to his zipper in the Arctic during an ill-advised pit stop and he thinks it has frozen and snapped off.

I have read that some authors think that it is a good thing when readers hate a character because they have made you feel something. What it made me feel is that I would have put the book down and stopped reading it if I hadn’t received it specifically for the purpose of writing a review. All in all, I was really glad when I finished the book and will wait for reviews before deciding whether or not to read the author’s next one.

I received this book free from Amazon Vine for purposes of writing a review.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

"The Book of Spies" by Gayle Lynds: Entertaining, fast moving and action packed

From the book description:  For centuries, emperors, historians, and even the Vatican have tried to locate Ivan the Terrible’s magnificent Library of Gold — a long-missing archive containing gold-covered, bejeweled books dating all the way back to the ancient Greeks. Now one of the volumes, The Book of Spies, has surfaced, and along with it the highly secret book club that owns the Library of Gold. They form a cabal of the globe’s most powerful men – men who will do anything to achieve their aims and protect their interests.

This espionage thriller has tons of action and two lead characters that I liked and wanted to succeed. The female main character, Eva Blake, is not a professional spy; she's a museum rare book curator. As the book opens, Eva has been charged with causing the death of her husband while driving drunk. She pleads guilty and goes to jail. And then the book jumps ahead two years. Judd Ryder, the other main character, is also not a professional spy but has the training and background from his military service. Judd's father is killed in connection with reports of a legendary lost Library of Gold tied into possible terrorist actions and the CIA recruits him to investigate. They also arrange for a temporary prison leave for Eva to go with Judd.

Shortly after Eva and Judd arrive in London for an exhibit featuring The Book of Spies (rumored to be part of the Library of Gold), the action really heats up and soon Eva and Judd are running from hired killers across several countries and following clues to the location of the Library of Gold. Putting too much more in the review would spoil the plot; it is enough to say you won't be bored while reading this book and will have the chance to learn some interesting things. I enjoyed the interaction between Judd and Eva and that the author did not take the easy route of a romance between them to fill up the book. There were also a couple good villains for the reader to hate and hope for them to get what they deserve. As with many thrillers, the book often flirted with the line of believability and a few times crossed over. But the plot was so entertaining and the action so constant, that I found it easy to suspend my disbelief in most cases. The bottom line is that this is a very entertaining thriller on a subject not usually covered in the spy thriller genre.  I give it 4 1/2 stars.

I had not read any of the author's previous books. After reading this one, I am going to check out some of the earlier ones.

I received this book from the Amazon Vine program for purposes of writing a review.

Monday, March 15, 2010

I didn't care for "Back in Black" by Lori Foster

A couple preliminary things:

1. If you didn't like the "woo woo" (paranormal) factor in some of the author's recent books, you'll be happy to know this is completely down to earth.

2. If you like your romance novels steamy, this one fits the bill; there are two different couples tearing up the sheets.   If you value romance over sex scenes you should skip this one.  For me it was sex too much too soon and left no room for an actual romance to grow between the characters.

This book lost me near the beginning because I couldn't respect the heroine. Gillian is a PR expect hired to clean up Drew Black's image. Whether or not you think his image needs any help from prior books, that was her job and she intended to keep things professional because a success would give her the means to open her own business. But instead of acting like a professional, Gillian lets Drew talk her into sex almost right away because no one would find out. (And compounds the mistake by running outside his house wearing nothing but his shirt so now she is not only unprofessional but letting everyone know it.) Then later in the book she had the foolishness to feel offended because he treated her like a woman he was having sex with, not as a professional with a job to do. And we're also supposed to believe that even though Drew is falling in love with her without anything really to show it.

The second couple are Brett (a fighter) and Audrey (head of an organization protesting the SBC). Having two couples means there isn't time to build a real romance with either one. Basically they just have sex and decide they love each other without anything to show a developing relationship. It's like the book version of a reality dating show where the couple goes on a handful of dates and then expects the audience to believe they are in love and get engaged.

I think the story would have been stronger with just one couple and much more so if Gillian had acted like the professional she claimed to be and let the relationship grow into something before she made the decision to cross a line and sleep with him. I want more from a romance and expected more from this author.

I checked this book out from the library.  Support your local library!

Friday, March 12, 2010

"Fantasy in Death" by J.D. Robb is Fantastical!

I love this series and think I love it more each time a new book comes out! It's not great literature but the author writes a heck of an entertaining story.   If you are not familiar with the "In Death" series, it is a futuristic mystery series written by the romance author Nora Roberts under the pseudonym J.D. Robb.  Lt. Eve Dallas is a New York homicide cop in the mid/late 21st century.  This is the 30th full novel in the series and there are several novellas published in other collections.

This most recent entry in the Lt. Eve Dallas series is much more concentrated on the crime investigation than the last few. The down side for me is that few of Eve's friends (all of whom I love) make an appearance in this book. But the focus on the criminal investigation means it is a better place for readers new to the series to jump in than some of the more recent ones. I still recommend that you read the first book "Naked in Death" to see how Eve and Roarke meet but if you don't want to wait to read this book, I suggest a new reader find one of the In Death fan wikis to get the background information you will need to understand a lot of the references to the characters' past history. If the author tried to give enough background for new readers, it would take up too much of the book. As a long time reader I appreciate that she doesn't do that.

The victim is a major e-geek game designer and one of the co-founders of a computer and holo-game company. He is found beheaded in a locked holo-room in his home where he was playing his company's latest game under development, Fantastical. Because of the victim's business and the circumstances of the crime, the EDD unit and Rourke are heavily involved in Eve's and Peabody's investigation. I found the mystery in this book very interesting and enjoyed this book a lot.

The victim was friends with the other 3 co-founders of his company since childhood or college. Because of this, Eve does a lot of thinking about the nature of friendship during her investigation. If you have read the whole series (or at least several of the earlier books), you will appreciate how much Eve Dallas has grown emotionally over the length of the series. It is a nice touch and makes the character more interesting. There is a passage near the end where Eve really understands how Roarke must feel about her risking her life for her job that was very tender.

I checked this book out from the library.  Support your local library!

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

"Sweet Misfortune: A Novel" by Kevin Alan Milne is wholesome but just OK

Sophie was engaged to Garrett but he dumped her just before the wedding and refused to tell her why. Now Garrett has returned a year later and wants Sophie to go out with him so he can explain (and try to win her back). Sophie agrees if she gets 100 responses to a classified ad that show lasting happiness.

From the description, I expected a light-hearted romantic comedy but it is not. There is a lot of sadness in the book. Sophie has been carrying around a lot of hurt and guilt since she was 9 years old. Despite seeing a counselor in her childhood and everyone telling her it was not her fault, she still feels guilty.

The best thing I can say about this book is that it is G rated: you could give this book to your mother or your daughter or pretty much anyone and not worry about bad language or sex. According to the website, Center Street publishes “wholesome entertainment, helpful encouragement and books of traditional values.” This book fits their criteria: there are several scattered and general references to providence and/or God but not enough to bother someone who isn’t religious. I probably would have enjoyed it more if it had been an all-out Christian fiction novel with the characters turning to God for emotional and spiritual healing. But this is good for people who want the wholesomeness without the religion.

I think the author wanted to write something like a Nicholas Sparks-type book but it didn’t have enough of an emotional impact on me to fit into that category. This is partly because I didn’t like the two main characters enough to care about them but mostly because I didn’t believe the characters would act they way they did. And what bothered me most about the book is that the characters don’t grow emotionally over the course of the book. The ending isn’t the result of character development but some outside influence that felt like a cheap gimmick.

This isn’t a bad book and there will be many readers who enjoy it. But I didn’t think it was a very good book so I gave it a middling rating.

One more thought:  you can tell this book was written by a guy because there is all this talk about chocolate and not one recipe.  Who writes a book about making sweets these days without including at least one recipe?  Apparently guys do.

I received this book from Amazon Vine for purposes of writing a review.

"Eye of the Red Tsar" by Sam Eastland -- an engaging 4 star historical thriller

I enjoyed this book very much. I would have given it 5 stars but for one plot point that I could not believe (later on that – but no spoilers). But even with that, I would definitely read the next book in what I assume will become a series of Inspector Pekkala books (the next book comes out in 2011).

The main character is Pekkala. At the beginning of the book he is a prisoner in a Soviet labor camp assigned to mark trees for cutting; he has been there for nine years since the Tsar’s abdication. A young political officer (Kirov) comes to request his assistance in an investigation because Pekkala is a special prisoner: he was the Tsar’s legendary special investigator. Pekkala, along with Kirov and Pekkala’s estranged older brother Anton, is charged with investigating the murder of Tsar Nicholas and his family. He has a strong moral code without being a wimpy or goody-goody character and that makes him a very interesting character.

If you have a particular interest in or have studied the deaths of the Romanovs (I have not), you may have to give the author a fair amount of artistic license because the point of the book is Pekkala’s character and his investigation, not to be a novelization of historical facts. One thing marred my complete enjoyment of the book. Pekkala makes a mistake (I won’t say what or where in the book because it would spoil it) that is completely at odds with everything that has been written about him in the rest of the book. Nevertheless, it is a very enjoyable historical thriller. It will be interesting to see what investigations Pekkala does in future books.

I got this book from Amazon Vine for purposes of writing a review.

"Days of Gold" by Jude Devereaux is entertaining but not her best: 4 stars

I have been a fan of Jude Devereaux for many years and if this book had been written by another author, I might have given it only 3.5 stars but the 4th star is probably a very generous rounding up. Judged against Deveraux's best books (A Knight in Sning Armor for one), this is a 2 to 3 stars. Even thought it had some flaws, I enjoyed it.

This book is the second in the Edilean Series that started with Lavender Morning (Edilean). That wasn't my favorite of her books either but I always hope her new books will move me as much as her older ones. It starts in Scotland in 1770 and features the source of the name Edilean.

The beginning of the romance is really delightful. But right at the time the romance should kick it up a notch, a really unbelievable plot obstacle comes in and the rest of the book swerves past the limits of believability (even for a romance!). This interruption takes away from the depth of feeling the reader gets for the hero and heroine and as a result, it is a zero hankie ending. (This in contrast to some of the author's earlier books that had major tear-fest endings.)

I checked out this book from the library.  Support your local library!

"31 Bond Street: A Novel" by Ellen Horan -- a historical legal mystery

This enjoyable book is a little difficult to categorize. It is a historical novel but it is more about the murder and trial than about the period. It is a courtroom drama but in a legal system without the familiar rights and processes we see in modern legal thrillers. One of the jacket blurbs likened it to a combination of Caleb Carr and Scott Turow, which I think fits for the subject matter. (I don't think it is as good as The Alienist: A Novel.) I love legal mysteries and quite enjoyed the historical nature of the book. That it was set in one of my favorite cities, New York City, added to the enjoyment.

The story is based on an actual murder case from 1857 and several of the characters are based on the actual people involved in that case. The main characters are the suspect Emma Cunningham (a widow with two daughters and the "wife" of the victim), Henry Clinton her attorney and Dr. Burdell the victim. Important secondary characters are Emma's teenage daughters Augusta and Helen, Samuel (Burdell's driver), John (a young boy who does errands for Burdell), and Ambrose Wicken (a Southern gentleman who Emma wants as a suitor for Augusta).

The story starts with the discovery of the body and Clinton's early involvement in the case and the moves back to the beginning of the relationship between Dr. Burdell and Emma. The story continues by alternating chapters on the murder investigation and trial with chapters covering the lives and activities of the victim and suspect before the murder. Unlike modern legal thrillers, Clinton does not go looking for the real killer; his focus is on using evidence to prove that it is someone other than Emma. Also, this book is much more centered on the people involved than on the trial itself. As the book progresses, the reader will see a lot of motives for killing Dr. Burdell and wonder whether or not Emma is the killer or if Clinton will be able win her acquittal either way. Many parts of the ending came as a surprise to me.

Because of the focus of the book on Emma, I think women may enjoy this more than men, but I recommend it to anyone who enjoys either historical novels or legal novels. I think it would also be a good book for book clubs because there is plenty to discuss in it.

I got this book free from the Amazon Vine program for purposes of reviewing it.