Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Cross Country by James Patterson

Cross Country is another in James Patterson's extremely popular series about homicide detective Alex Cross. In this book, Alex is called to the scene of a gory crime where an entire family has been massacred. He quickly realises that the mother was his college girlfriend. Other family massacres start occuring, and Alex hears rumors that The Tiger is responsible. The Tiger is a shadowy figure who is known for having no mercy and for using young boys as his gang.
The action shifts to Africa when Alex hears that The Tiger has returned there. He moves from Nigeria to Sierra Leone and Laos, tracking the assassin and finding that he is not welcome by the police in these countries or even by the CIA, whom he expected to help him. Alex meets a woman reporter who helps him untangle the web of interconnections that make up the background against which The Tiger is employed. He encounters the inter-tribal wars, the lawlessness and the hopelessness of the African refugee camps.
After being captured and imprisoned, Alex is released and sent back to America. He returns home to find that his family has been kidnapped by The Tiger. Knowing what he does of The Tiger's methods, he is appalled and determined to do whatever is necessary to bring them home. The book moves quickly to a stunning climax.
This book is recommended for those who have read previous books in Patterson's series and are interested in an additional story about Detective Alex Cross. It is more of an issue-driven novel than the usual Cross motif, where Alex works to arrest and stop serial killers. Cross Country is a mystery but also gives the reader insight into what is occuring in modern Africa.

Arlington Park by Rachel Cusk

This is one of the final books for 2008, and how I wish I'd waited for 2009. It is rare that I don't like a book, but this one was like Real Housewives of London, and I just don't have any patience for that kind of thing.

The book follows various women who live in a suburb of London, Arlington Park, through a day. Some work and some are stay at home moms. The one thread that ties them together is that none of them is satisfied with their life. They all feel that life has passed them by, that everything is just too, too hard and that their husbands just aren't pulling their weight in the marriages. They all have children, and treat them as an afterthought, little people that just add more work to their existence.

ARGH!! This is exactly the kind of person I avoid like the plague in my life. I have an optimistic outlook on life, and little patience for the poor little me attitude. If you don't like your life, change it? Or, as I often say, if everyone in your life is causing you problems, it's not them. You need to change yourself. I hate to end the year with a book I can't recommend, but this one was not for me at all.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Barcelona by Robert Hughes

Wow, I can't believe I've finished reading this book. I started it several months ago and put it down due to its denseness and the push to read more accessible texts. I was determined, however, to finish it, and Christmas break gave me the chance to do so.

Robert Hughes has created a masterpiece about this Spanish city. Fact upon fact tumble from the pages. History, food, music, art, science, inventions, political parties and philosophies, famous citizens, politicians, architecture, banking, world fairs; all are covered in intense detail. Hughes must have spent years researching this book. I've learned a ton about Barcelona, but would need to read the book at least once more to retain many of the details.

This book is recommended for those interested in how a great city came into being and how its citizens define themselves. The only disappointment I had was with the ending. The entire last chapter, devoted to the great Spanish architect, Gaudi, ends somewhat abruptly in the 1920's. It seems that if one devoted the time and energy to write such a massive tome, that the years since would have been written about as well. I'm very glad to have read this book and learned so much from it.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The Bible Salesman by Clyde Edgerton

Henry Dampier can't believe his luck. Here he was, meandering along selling Bibles in the rural South, and he meets an honest-to-God FBI man. More astonishing, this FBI agent, Preston Clearwater, wants Henry to work with him, taking down a stolen car ring. All Henry has to do is drive the stolen cars from one point to the next, do everything Clearwater asks without question, and never tell anyone what he is doing. Henry can't believe his luck.

As the book progresses, Edgerton fills in Henry's prior life. His father was killed when Henry was a baby, and his mother left him and his sister with relatives. He grew up surrounded with family, Aunt Dorie, Uncle Jack, Uncle Samuel, his cousin Carson and sister Catherine. Family and religion shaped his life. As he moves around the South, Henry meets new people. Marleen is his first serious love, and the Finley sisters welcome him into their home.

But, all is not well. In his new life with Clearwater, Henry starts to realise all is not quite right. There are strange men who seem unlikely to work for the government, night trips that can't be mentioned, and soon the work progresses from taking cars to taking safes from houses. Along the way, Henry keeps his sweetness but starts to question and put hints together. The book builds to a revelation of murder and resolution.

Edgerton is a master at portraying Southern life. This book illustrates life in the South in the time period from the 1930's to the late 1950's, that last generation before television, electricity and cars became commonplace. Family and religion made up a large part of most people's lives. People lived close to the land, growing gardens, hunting and fishing. Moral codes were rigorous and enforcement was a community affair, where your neighbor was as likely to correct a child as the parents.

The other strength of the book is character development. If the reader is from the South, they immediately recognise the characters, as they grew up with people who were just like the ones Edgerton describes. The description of food, entertainment, religious beliefs and attitudes towards life are familiar, and the book feels like coming home and slipping on comfortable clothes. This book is recommended for those looking for reading entertainment and a fond look back to another time.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

The Lace Reader by Brunonia Barry

Salem, Massachusetts is the home of the Whitney family. Whitney women are known for their strength, their eccentricity and their ability to read the future in lace. There is Eva, the matriarch, who lives in Salem, reads lace and runs a tearoom. May, her stepdaughter, is an agrophobic who lives on an island in the harbour, where she has devoted her life to helping battered women, many of whom live there while putting their lives back together. Emma, Eva's daughter, also lives on the island, blinded and brain-damaged after a beating by her husband, Cal. May's daughters were twin girls, Towner and Lyndley. Lyndley committed suicide when she was seventeen and Towner left town, seeking a new life.

As the story opens, Eva has gone missing and Towner returns home, drawn by this family crisis. Towner seems to be the catalyst that causes old relationships and secrets to reemerge. Cal Boynton is back in town where he has reinvented himself as a religious leader of a cultlike following. A young girl, Angela Rickey, who is pregnant with Cal's child, also disappears. Towner's old love, Jack, is still in town and anxious to resume their relationship. In addition, a town policeman, Rafferty, also falls in love with Towner. Towner starts to untangle the mysteries that have haunted her life. Why did her twin commit suicide in front of her and Jack? What is the fixation that Cal has with the Whitney women? Towner slowly reveals the truth, sometimes reading lace to find patterns. The book rises to a page-turning climax where the truth that has formed this family is finally revealed.

The Lace Reader is a compelling and satisfying read. It explores the issues of sexual and physical abuse. The mindset of those who enter cults is investigated. Suicide and mental illness are other themes, along with lost love and the yearning to hide in the past. While it covers depressing material, the book is not a depressing one overall. Rather, it leaves the reader with a message of hope and the realization that the truth must be faced in order to lose its power to skew lives. Not easily forgotten, this book is recommended for all fiction readers.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Don't Know Much About Anything Else by Kenneth Davis

If you're looking for an entertaining book to give as a gift or for yourself, get yourself to a bookstore and buy Kenneth Davis's book, Don't Know Much About Anything Else. A sequel to Davis's New York Times bestseller, Don't Know Much About History, this book is what I'd call a "dipper". Rather than sitting down and reading it cover to cover, it is a great book to open up whenever you have a few minutes. A few minutes is all it takes for Davis to pose questions about subjects that you probably can't answer although you've probably wondered about, and to provide the answers.

Covering subjects as diverse as Labor Day, the state of Ohio, Katherine Hepburn, pro hockey and a myriad of other topics, the book is divided into sections. These include famous people, exceptional places, historic happenings and civics, holidays and traditions, everyday objects and remarkable inventions, space and the natural world, sports, entertainment and a miscellaneous section. Within each section, each subject is formatted the same way. The subject starts with a few fact-filled paragraphs about the subject. Following that are a series of questions, most of which you know you should know but can't really answer. That's not a problem, as the answers to the questions are on the back of the page.

For example, in the Labor Day subject, the reader learns who was the driving force behind the holiday, and the date on which it was signed into law. The date that holiday falls on annually is given. Then, the questions are items such as what was the first minimum wage, what percentage of workers belong to a union, what union was thrown out of the AFL-CIO for corruption and why is Frances Perkins famous? All of these are answered on the following page.

I found this book to be a delight. It is a great way to pass some time, and to learn facts. I can imagine families playing trivia with this book as the foundation, or parents using it as a fun method of educating their children. This book is highly recommended for all readers. Everyone can learn something new from the book, and will have an interesting time doing so.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

King of Nod by Scott Fad

WOW! If you're a fantasy fan, this book will amaze you. It is a rollercoaster ride that grabs the reader immediately and refuses to let go until the end reveals all secrets.

Boo Taylor has been away from his home, Sweetpatch Island, for twenty years. He left behind old secrets, family intrigues and an epic romance gone bad. Things were happening on the island that were more than he could bear. Fires, murders, racial tensions, curses, hints of old intrigues and tangled family relationships. It finally became more than Boo could handle, and he went away to try to build a life elsewhere.

But the island constantly tugs at his heart and spirit. When his father dies, Boo returns. He plans to only come for the funeral but quickly gets pulled into the old intrigues and mysteries. And he finds his lost love, Gussie again. Who are really his ancestors? Who has committed the murders and set the fires? What secrets hide in the old ruined mansion from which the island was ruled in days of slavery?

This book is highly recommended. It is easily one of the most memorable books I've read this year. The language is amazing, twisting and turning the tension, pulling the reader further and further into the secrets that make up Boo Taylor's life and which, if undiscovered, will kill him. Scott Fad has pulled off a masterpiece.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Homeland Insecurity by Terry Turchie and Kathleen Puckett

Homeland Insecurity is written by Terry Turchie and Kathleen Puckett. Turchie was a former Deputy Assistnat Director of the Counterterrorism Divison of the FBI, and was involved in the Theodore Kaczynski and the Eric Rudolph domestic terrorism cases. Kathleen Puckett was an FBI Special Agent for 23 years, involved in behavioral consulting.
These authors wrote Homeland Insecurity because they believe the FBI is in a perilous situation due to political manuvering and change of the organization's primary mission. The connection between the FBI and the CIA is investigated, and how that relationship has changed since the 9-11 terrorist attacks.
One of the more interesting parts of the books is the authors' belief that politicians have weakened the FBI, both to protect themselves from criminal investigation for bribery or influence peddling, and to provide a scapegoat for terror incidents or to serve as a grandstanding platform to advance their own political careers. Politicians from both political parties are named, along with their actions that harm the FBI. Those named include Richard Nixon, Frank Church, Jamie Gorelick, Don Edwards, Patrick Leahy and Charless Grassley, Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Richard Shelby and George Bush. It is the authors' contention that politicians are addicted to power, and it is an addiction like any other, causing the addict to do anything to procure their drug of choice. In addition to the named politicians, famous scandals such as the Archer Midland scandal are explained.
The other focus of the book is the focus on the change of mission for the FBI. The focus has steadily moved from the criminal investigations that the agency was created to combat, to a counterterrorism focus. Agents are now more collectors of information than investigators. While given responsibility, the agency is also restricted by artificial walls between agencies, and oversight regulations, that make their work more difficult. In particular, the relationship between the FBI and the CIA is strained and adversarial.
While interesting, I'm not sure I was convinced of all of the authors' contentions. Some of the evidence seemed to be presented in a less than impartial fashion, or interpreted in the agency's favor whenever there was a question of how events should be handled. This book is recommended for those who are interested in how governments and government agencies work, and those concerned with the antiterrorism structure set up to protect the country.

Interpreter Of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri

Interpreter Of Maladies won the Pulitzer Prize in 1999. The collection of nine stories, by Jhumpa Lahiri, explores Indian culture and the interaction of Indian individuals with Western (British and American) culture.
In addition to exploring the Indian immigrant experience, the stories in this collection explore love and lonliness and the ways that people interact with those around them. Some stories focus on couples and their love affairs, others with relationships such as a sweeper and the building tenets, or an Indian women who babysits an American child. The stories give many details of the Indian culture such as mode of dress or adornment, social relationships, attitudes towards working, and religion outlooks.
My personal favorite was the story "This Blessed House". It explores the relationship between Sanjeev, an Indian who has finished his education and is moving up in his company, and his new wife, Twinkle. Although these are modern individuals, their romance was still an arranged one and the story demonstrates how they adjust to each other and to marriage. While many of the details of Indian culture are used, I liked this story because it is universal. Everyone in a marriage goes through this time of discovery and adjustment.
A quick read, this book is highly recommended for the reader who wants to learn about India and the Indian immigrant experience. It is hard to imagine that at least one of these stories wouldn't touch any reader, regardless of their background.