Thursday, February 26, 2009

A No-Spoilers Review

The Last Oracle: A Novel (Sigma Force)
by James Rollins

Last summer, the diabolical Mr. Rollins left his fans with a cliff-hanger ending that was simply TORTUROUS. Let me start this review by telling readers that the unresolved questions are answered thoroughly and in a completely satisfying manner. And, you don't have to wait `til the end of the book to learn those answers. Yes, that's all very vague, but I don't want to give away a thing.

Now the above paragraph may seem pretty intimidating or off-putting if you haven't read the novel that precedes this one, The Judas Strain. Well, here's the most impressive thing about The Last Oracle: It absolutely works as a stand alone novel. Yes, it's great if you're a long-time fan of the Sigma Force novels, but Rollins manages to jump-start this tale from the opening pages, and I don't think you'd need any back story to dive right into this adventure. And never once did I feel like there was that awkward exposition you often see in series novels. Bravo!

The hard part of reviewing any James Rollins novel is trying to summarize the plot. This novel opens in 398 A.D., with the eponymous Oracle of Delphi. The final moments of the temple are depicted. A few pages later we're in Romania, circa 1959. The Ruskies are rounding up a bunch of charming villagers. And a few pages after that we're at last in modern-day DC, with our old friend Gray Pierce of Sigma. Walking across the Mall, he's approached by a "homeless" man. As he pauses to give the guy a hand-out, a shot rings out. Gray is safe, but the derelict is killed. Later investigation suggests the stranger was the intended target, not Gray. This is confirmed when Gray's boss takes one look at the body and say's, "I know this man."

It turns out the man was an important part of Sigma history. Two clues from his murder lead Gray to the Smithsonian Institution's Museum of Natural History. There he meets Elizabeth Polk, who becomes a major player in the novel. The scenes in the museum (where I once worked in real life) are among my favorite that Rollins has ever written. The action picks up at this point, and as one clue leads to another, Gray, Elizabeth, and an assortment of Sigma and non-Sigma characters find themselves globe-trotting from India to Russia. With this author, it's pretty much a given that the action comes fast and furious, and the pages will fly by at lightning speed.

Along the way, Rollins explores the connections of autism to the Oracle of Delphi, the history of the Romani (Gypsy) people, and the advancement of the human race. We get to visit with old favorite characters from books past (though some you'll expect are notably missing) and we'll meet some new characters too. Not all are human.

As always, there was some real science entwined in the plot that absolutely floored me! Sometimes it's almost an aside and you just wish the entire novel was about the fact that, apparently, human beings (all of us) can see two or three seconds into the future. And again Rollins provides an afterward to clarify fact vs. fiction and cite some of his sources. He also manages to incorporate up-to-the-minute current events into the novel's plot. It was a little bizarre to have real life news delving very directly into the novel's story. Talk about timely!

Okay, I'm unable to summarize this plot in any meaningful way. It's simply too complex. But The Last Oracle is fantastic addition to the Sigma novels, and works shockingly well as a stand alone. You need a great airplane book or a beach read? This is the book you're looking for.
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A Haunting Novel

The Cellist of Sarajevo
by Steven Galloway

Steven Galloway's spare novel The Cellist of Sarajevo will be haunting me for a long time. I honestly couldn't tell you when a work of fiction made me stop and think so hard about the world we live in.

As the novels opens, the siege of Sarajevo is underway, and 22 innocent civilians have just died from a shelling attack while they were waiting in line to buy bread. The eponymous cellist watched it all from his window. They were his friends and neighbors. For reasons never explained (and without need of explanation) the unnamed cellist decides he will play an adagio on the spot of the attack for the next 22 days.

This small gesture of beauty in the midst of senseless violence and horror makes the man a target. The attackers of the city, described only as "the men on the hill" will want to make a lesson of him--though exactly what that lesson is I'm not sure. The military men defending the city want the cellist protected. They assign that job to the second of four central characters the novel revolves around. She is a sniper, going only by the name Arrow. She was once a happy student at the University, but now she is a weapon in human form. Every day she struggles with her personal moral compass.

The third character is Kenan, a mild-mannered husband and father. The gauntlet he runs every few days is the long trek across town to collect fresh water for his family. No one is Sarajevo is safe. Every time they step outside, they are facing death (although staying inside is no safer with buildings being bombed daily). Kenan's terror at leaving home is echoed by the fourth character, Dagnan, a baker on the way to work who is literally paralyzed by the prospect of crossing the street. If he crosses the street, will he be shot? If he doesn't cross the street, how will he eat?

The characters in this novel are living in a world gone mad. And it wasn't decades ago. It wasn't a third world country. It was barely a 12 years ago in a major European city. I was a young adult at the time, largely ignoring the news. Reading this (mercifully) short, profoundly moving story sent me to the history books trying to understand what this conflict was about. I still don't understand. But this novel gave me a new comprehension of what war really means. Galloway brought war into a world very familiar to me. It kept me awake at night. This is a novel that should be read by all thinking people.
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A debut worth checking out...

The Story of Forgetting: A Novel
by Stefan Merrill Block

For reasons inexplicable, it took me weeks to pick up this novel and read the first sentence, but once I did I was hooked. I don't know what my problem was, but kudos to Stefan Merrill Block, because he drew me right into his story from the first pages.

The structure of the novel is that it jumps back and forth between two different characters, two different stories. The first is 68-year-old Abel Haggard, a modern-day hermit living exactly as he did decades ago on the distant outskirts of Dallas. Abel is basically reviewing his life inside his mind and agonizing over the mistakes he has made. Through his recollections you learn about his one true love, and how he lost everything he had. Now he's waiting for something... and trying to hang on by his fingertips to the life he has.

The second story revolves around 15-year-old geek, Seth Waller. I'm a 39-year-old woman, but I can't tell you how much I related to Seth. My social skills are considerably better, but we're both science nerds and were high school outcasts. Through Seth, we learn the story of his mother's diagnosis with early-onset Alzheimer's in her mid-thirties. As painful as it is to watch her decline through Seth's eyes, it doesn't touch the sadness of the strained relationship he has with his father. Scenes between the two of them broke my heart, as each tried to deal in his own way with tragedy. Seth copes by embarking on a "scientific study" of his mother's illness.

While these two equally compelling narratives are unfolding, there are two more narrative threads weaved throughout the novel. One is the story of the orgin of the Alzheimer's mutation that plagues Seth's mother. It starts with patient number one and moves forward through history. The other thread is actually what ties the stories of Abel and Seth together. It's a series of tales of a mythological land called Isidora--stories that were told to both Abel and Seth in their childhoods.

It sounds like a lot is going on, but all the threads blend to form a satisfying cloth that is neither too busy nor boring. The novel moves at a fast pace, and I found myself (surprisingly) equally captivated by the tales of both Seth and Abel. They were rich and fully-formed characters with distinctive voices and personalities. When I started the novel I thought the mystery would be: How do their stories intersect? That really isn't it. You just want to see these tales through to their proper conclusion.

One more thing... Reading what I've written, this novel sounds like a real downer. I can't pretend the subject matter is happy, but my personal tolerance for tragedy is incredibly low, and I really enjoyed this promising debut.
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Take this review with a grain of salt...

Friend of the Devil (Inspector Alan Banks)
by Peter Robinson

Why do I say that? Because I did something I never do--I jumped into the middle of a long-established series without reading any of the prior books. And it was really obvious that I'd missed a lot. It was almost as if the novel's strengths had become weaknesses for me. The characters were so complex that I couldn't catch up on their history through a few paragraphs of exposition. Likewise, the British setting was so realistic that I found myself struggling to figure out the police officers' jobs and hierarchy, as well as to decipher the meaning of slang and pop culture references. I feel so American, LOL.

The novel has two protagonists. Annie Cabbott is a homicide detective in crisis. Her current state does not make her especially likeable, and I find myself wondering how she became the mess she is. Currently she's on temporary loan to another city, taking her away from familiar surroundings. Personally, she's drinking like a fish and having ill-advised sexual liaisons. Professionally, she's investigating the murder of a presumably harmless, helpless quadriplegic. Although, as my phrasing suggests, there's more to the case than first meets the eye.

The other major character is Alan Banks. Where Annie is in crisis, Alan is at a turning point. He is also investigating a homicide, a violent sex crime with a 19-year-old victim. The narrative jogs back and forth between the investigations of these two cases, which was a little challenging at times. It's a lot of names and details to keep track of. And being a somewhat more realistic procedural, you really get a feel for the frustration and drudgery of looking at the same clues, statements, and details over and over, trying to see something new. Trying to find a new trail to follow. Trying to see what you've previously missed.

Eventually, it begins to seem that these two disparate cases may be linked somehow. I was gratified that the author didn't rely on too improbable a coincidence to explain this. The resolutions to the crimes were both sad and satisfying. The novel ended quite abruptly after the murders had been solved, leaving me wanting a little more dénouement. And as challenging as it had been to figure out the characters' past based on clues in the text, I was left very much wanting to know what would happen to them next. While I doubt I'll invest the effort into reading a lengthy backlist, I have a feeling I may be reading the next book in this series. What more can an author ask; I appear to be hooked.
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It's a slippery slope to food snobbery

The Food Snob's Dictionary: An Essential Lexicon of Gastronomical Knowledge
by David Kamp

This compact book wasn't exactly what I was expecting. Given that it's a dictionary obstensibly for "food snobs," you might think it would show them some respect. But this dictionary, while quite informative, was completely irreverent and downright snarky. To be honest, I really found myself chuckling as I read the entries.

The "definitions" included culinary terms (molecular gastronomy, artisanal, crudo), procedures (brining, expedite, plating), famous chefs (Alice Waters, Marcus Gavius Apicus, James Beard), gourmet foods (speck, crepinette, fennel pollen), food purveyors (Dirty Girl Produce, Cowgirl Creamery, Niman Ranch), and kitchen equipment (bain-marie, All-Clad, Global Knives). Often, the word being defined is used in an illuminating sentence, such as, "Ever since Chef got his own TV show, he hardly ever cooks anymore; basically, he comes in two nights a week just to EXPEDITE and scream at us like a dick." Oh, and did I mention the foul language? Didn't offend me in the least. Actually, it cracked me up, but that's me.

Aside from the humor, there is a lot of good information here for the person looking to learn about both current trends and culinary history. As a San Franciscan, I was impressed by how many local food purveyors these New York authors included in their book. But they're not just bi-coastal, the mid-west was represented as well. If you're interested in the subject, this book is worth picking up to assess your personal snobbery quotient--or perhaps potential.

Blows The Lovely Bones out of the water!

The Almost Moon by Alice Sebold

Alice Sebold is dark. Her first wildly bestselling novel dealt with the murder of a child. This novel deals with matricide. It's laid out plainly in the opening line, "When all is said and done, killing my mother came easily." Me, personally, I've never thought about murdering my mother. And yet, I totally understood how this previously law-abiding citizen wound up in the situation she was in. Sebold had me with her every step of the way.

The entire novel actually takes place in just about 24 hours. Forty-nine-year-old Helen is paying a visit to her difficult and declining 88-year-old mother Claire. In a moment of weakness (Or is it mercy?) Helen snaps. She suffocates her mother. This is horrible, but I believe most readers will understand why it happened. Helen had been a virtual slave to her mother for years. Their love/hate relationship is as complex as they come. Although the events of the novel unfold in the course of a day, through flashbacks and memories we really get the story of Helen's relationship with both of her parents as well as her ex-husband, friends, and now adult daughters. Helen is a product of her upbringing. She's become what she had to become. So, when she snaps and kills her mother, I understood it.

But from that one pivotal event, she does everything wrong. She compounds her mistake in truly horrible ways. It is the ultimate downward spiral, and watching it is like watching a train wreck--you can't look away. And I couldn't stop turning pages fast enough. You know it will end badly as she pulls others into her nightmare, but you just have to see how it ends. Now I know, and I find it a bit haunting.

This is that rare and most wonderful of things, a literary page-turner. The writing is fantastic and the plot compulsive. I saw Sebold speak to a room full of booksellers in June. She said, "This is what you're all wanting to know: Does the follow-up to The Lovely Bones suck?" Let me tell you, it does not suck. Sebold's sophomore effort is a triumph. Read it.

Can't figure out the hype...

An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England by Brock Clarke

So, this is one of the big "buzz" books for fall. I was totally predisposed to like it, 'cause everyone's raving about it. But my honest opinion? Meh. I'd give it two and a half stars, but I've decided to round up because other people seem to like it so much.

If I were to try to describe this novel in a single word, that word would be "quirky." And as a rule, I'm very fond of quirky, but something wasn't working for me here. The book is written as a first person memoir. The eponymous arsonist is Sam Pulsifer, who "accidentally" burned down the Emily Dickinson house when he was 18 years old. The fire resulted in two deaths, and Sam went to prison for 10 years. But he's no hardened criminal. There is a real softness to Sam as he recounts his life story. In fact, he seems almost cognitively challenged somehow. He's not retarded in any way, but there's a slowness about him, his thinking process, and his actions that continually took me out of the story. And there was a surrealness to this tale that just didn't work for me. I don't think it's bad writing. The author's choices were deliberate and well-executed, but simply strange to me. Nothing in the novel was overtly unreal, but nothing was really believable either.

I think the real downfall of this novel for me was that Sam, ultimately, just isn't that likeable. At least to me he wasn't. Still, the book has humor, a strange plot involving a new series of fires being set to writers' homes around New England, some interesting supporting characters, and is well-written in its way. I will be VERY curious to see the response of other readers, and if this book the big hit everybody is predicting.

We are all lucky

Lottery by Patricia Wood

I'm trying to figure out why I enjoyed this novel so much. It's not the writing, which is fine, but ordinary. And it's not a page-turner of a plot--though it has to be said that I read the book easily in two days. It moves quite quickly and kept my interest at all times. But what I really loved about the novel was its first-person protagonist, Perry L. Crandall. It's hard not to fall in love with him!

I've heard the plot described as "high concept." I guess if you can sum it up in a sentence, it is that. Here's the sentence: a cognitively impaired (but adamantly NOT retarded) man wins 12 million dollars in the Washington State Lottery. From there the story is everything you'd expect it to be. There are good, kind people around Perry, and other terrible people who would take every advantage of his good nature. I laughed, I cried, I experienced the full range of human emotion. Really, it's just a very sweet book with a whole cast of incredibly endearing characters. It was simply a pleasure to read.

This is what beach reading is all about!

The Judas Strain by James Rollins

I have to admit that I'm a die-hard James Rollins fan. Cracking open his new book is one of the highlights of my summer. Sure his action can be a bit over-the-top and a few details slightly hyperbolic, LOL. I mean, what's a thriller without the thrills? But the books are consistently well-researched, deftly plotted, and very, very smart.

Probably my favorite aspect of Rollins' thrillers is their integration of science into the story. After all, his team of protagonists, the Sigma Force, is part of a government agency that recruits former special forces operatives and educates them to the Ph.D. level in scientific disciplines. They've got both the military training and the scientific knowledge to investigate technological and scientific phenomenon around the world on behalf of the US government. Not a bad starting premise.

The plots of Rollins' novels tend to be complex, multi-stranded affairs that are difficult to summarize. In Judas Strain, as has been noted by other readers, there is an urgency brought on by a possible pandemic outbreak of bacterial infections. That, in and of itself, is not the most original plot. But in a Rollins novel, it's never that simple. Did you know that only 10 percent of the cells that make up your body are human, and the other 90 percent are alien--bacteria, parasites, etc? It's true, absolutely true. Did you know that the difference between a commonplace, harmless bacteria and a potential killer disease is just the tiniest alteration to its genetic code? What would happen if something altered all the zillions of harmless bacteria we have contact with daily and suddenly they turned on us in the most horrific way imaginable? And I do mean the most horrific way imaginable, because James Rollins is a bit of a sicko, and nothing seems to be off limits for him. What he puts his poor "patient zero" through is--yuck--awful!

But what does all this have to do with the travels of Marco Polo? The architecture of Angor Wat? The behavior of red crabs on Christmas Island? The development of "Angelic" text? The religious beliefs of cannibals? How the heck does Rollins COME UP WITH all this stuff? And most impressively, how the heck does he tie all the strands together! Because he does, most satisfyingly. Although, it must be warned that The Judas Strain leaves readers with a simply terrible cliff-hanger that will have us all on tenterhooks until next summer. Waiting for the next book in the series is going to be torture!

Briefly and perfectly told

On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

I've been meaning to read McEwan forever. So many books, so little time. On Chesil Beach was the perfect solution. It can be easily read in a sitting.

It is the story of Edward and Florence on their wedding night on the British coast in 1962. Almost all of the action takes place in that one evening, with flashbacks that tell the tale of these two young people's lives and the entire history of their relationship. They're both so young, and innocent and scared. Even though 1962 isn't that much before my time, reading this book it felt like a period drama from another century. It was a different world.

It became immediately obvious what everyone says is true. McEwan writes beautifully, just beautifully, but the novel is not especially difficult or challenging. What impressed me the most was how concisely but fully he told his story. Highly recommended.

You gotta laugh...

Boomsday by Christopher Buckley

Listen, is everybody here reading Christopher Buckley? Seriously folks, you need to pick up a book. I know it's political satire. And a book about Social Security reform doesn't sound like it has a lot of potential. But trust me, this is laugh-out-loud funny stuff.

Who else could invent a pro-life organization called the Society for the Protection of Every Ribonucleic Molecule--or SPERM for short. Even his little throw-aways are fabulous. The protagonist is briefly incarcerated. In prison, there are so many jailed journalists refusing to name sources (from the Society Page, for example) that they have their own gang: Pulitzer Nation.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Cassandra Devine is a 29-year-old on a crusade. She feels passionately that her generation should not be bankrupted paying for the retirement benefits of baby boomers. With the government apparently unwilling to propose a workable solution she decides to bring this front and center in American politics as a "meta-issue." With her PR background and her senatorial mouthpiece she can make it happen. Suddenly "voluntary transitionsing," (legalized suicide at the age of 70 for tax breaks and other benefits) is all anyone can talk about. It goes from being a tool for dialogue to being seriously considered by voters.

Buckley has an amazing eye for skewering our culture. The reason he's so funny is that everything he observes is so painfully true! Fans of the Daily Show and the Colbert Report will surely enjoy.

Oy, this book is good

The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon

When did Michael Chabon become one of our finest living writers? I've been reading his novels for about two decades now, loving each successive work more. Suddenly I realize that he is one of those rare writers where you go out and buy the book full price on the day it's released. He's that good. And The Yiddish Policeman's Union lived up in all ways to my high expectations.

The novel grabbed me right from the opening pages. We meet Meyer Landsman, a somewhat down on his luck homicide detective. We meet the victim, a John Doe in the cheap hotel Landsman calls home. We meet Meyer's cousin/partner, his ex-wife/boss, and many, many other supporting characters, each more richly-drawn than the last.

I must confess summarizing plots is not my strong suit. However, unlike many "literary" novels--and it is as literary as they come--this is most definitely a plot-driven novel. It's a who-done-it, and perhaps more importantly it's a why-done-it. Because as Meyer and Berko investigate the execution-style murder of this young addict, the world they live in is revealed to us. And it's possible that this alternate universe is the most interesting thing about the novel. It's a world where the European Jews fled from Hitler to Alaska--a premise based on a historic trivia fact. They've populated Sitka and made it their own for the past 60 years, and in just a few weeks they need to get out. Alaska is "reverting" back to the Americans in much the way that Hong Kong recently reverted to the Chinese. The oft-repeated refrain of these characters is "Strange times to be a Jew." True enough.

And if nothing else, this sure is one Jewish murder mystery. It's chock full of Yiddish, a joy for me, but surely not for a majority of the novel's readers. A lot you can pick up in context, but Chabon's not going out of his way to help readers there. You'll learn about boundary mavens and Jewish prophesy. It's all very exotic, but so richly and realistically portrayed. Chabon brings this world that never was to life, and it's fascinating. And while the mystery surely kept me turning pages late into the night, it was my pleasure in the characters and the setting and the world created that made me truly, truly love this novel. Reading simply doesn't get any better than this.

Fluffy but fun, fun, fun!

Scavenger by David Morrell

I'm a latecomer to the fiction of David Morrell. I have not yet read his classic thrillers from the 70s and 80s. I have them to look forward to in the future. From what I've heard, they may be a little more substantive than what Morrell is writing today--and that's not a criticism of his current work.

I read Scavenger, Morrell's follow-up to last year's thoroughly entertaining Creepers, in about four hours the other day. The novel comes in at 333 pages (plus some interesting afterwards), but it's a light 333 pages, with short chapters and lots of white space. And again, this is not a criticism. There's something really delightful about sitting down with a thriller that you just can't put down. It's entertainment. It's fun. You can actually finish the darn thing in a timely manner! Sure there's a little part of you that may want more, but it's sooo satisfying just gobbling the thing down whole!

As I mentioned above, I enjoyed Creepers and I thoroughly enjoyed Scavenger as well. I would also recommend reading Creepers first, just because that's my nature. But truthfully, you could easily get by without having read the prequel. The stories aren't that linked--other than the fact that the notoriety Frank and Amanda received in the wake of the first novel brought them to the attention of the antagonist in the second novel. Did you ever notice how some fictional characters just seem to attract psychopaths like flies to honey?

I have to agree, there isn't a lot of character development in this novel. That's not what the novel is about. Morrell has surrounded his two protagonists with almost archetypal characters. They do their job. A lot of detail and development just serves to slow the story down. He has given his characters conflict and obstacles. This novel is entirely plot-driven, and I felt it moved at a very satisfying pace. I thought the information on time capsules was interesting, and that it was an intriguing device to build a story around. I wondered if the stuff about video games was a little...dated. But you know what, I didn't care. This novel was my cotton candy on a dreary Saturday afternoon. I just ate it up.

Educational and thought-provoking

Next by Michael Crichton

I'm another one of those readers who looks forward with anticipation to see what subject Michael Crichton takes on in each successive novel. I feel like he, more than anyone else, has his finger on the pulse of the future. I believe he sees what is going on in science, technology, and our culture and draws logical, if disturbing, projections about the pitfalls ahead. In Next, Crichton takes on several different aspects of genetic research, and there is plenty of grist for his mill.

Many readers and reviewers have criticized Next as having too many characters and too many subplots going on. This is actually a strength. The novel is the literary equivalent of films like Crash and Syriana, that take on huge topics by creating a pastiche of interrelated characters on all sides of the issue. In Next, those characters include researchers in many shades of gray on the scale between good and evil. There are many individuals who stand to profit financially from this new science. There are interesting explorations of the legal ramifications of this emerging technology. We are even introduced to some amazing transgenic animals.

When I read Prey, I was amazed by the potential of nanotechnology. I am wowed again by the potential of genetics. But as with everything that involved money and power, there's a very real dark side citizen's need to be aware of. There are gray areas in the ethics of this research. As always after reading a Crichton novel I feel better educated about these issues. I feel I've actually learned something in a thoroughly entertaining way. Because I was entertained. The story being told had me fully engaged and the short chapters kept everything moving at a brisk pace.

Now, I can explore some of the books in Crichton's bibliography of Next to explore the non-fictionalized aspects of these important issues. Even if you don't feel like reading a bunch of science books, it would be well worth your time to read Next.

Welcome back, Mercer!

Havoc by Jack Du Brul

For fans of Jack Du Brul and his series character Philip Mercer, the wait for the latest book has been far too long! At least Mercer is returning to us in a fashionable hardback edition. And it's possible that absence has made my heart grow fonder, because I found this novel a joy to read from start to finish.

Perhaps working with the master, Clive Cussler, is affecting Du Brul's own work, because Havoc has a distinctly Cusslerian format. There's the mix of contemporary history, ancient history, and how current day events can shed light on and solve the mysteries of our time. The novel opens during the final hours of the Hindenberg's voyage. The events that occur right before the airship's destruction are... startling.

From there we jump to Mercer in Africa, and his meeting with Cali Stowe--who I'm pretty sure is my favorite of Du Brul's leading ladies--under fairly stressful circumstances. After surviving their first meeting in the midst of a coup attempt, little do the two realize they'll soon be reunited stateside. The mystery that began on the Hindenberg in 1937 is intimately tied to the events of unfolding around them.

And once the plot gets rolling, the action is non-stop taking Mercer and Cali to locations ranging from an east coast casino to the lost tomb of Alexander the Great. As a matter of fact, it's possible my only complaint in the whole novel was Mercer's wanton destruction of historic artifacts. I was SO caught up in the story that I'd cringe every time something priceless was destroyed. I kept having to tell myself, It's just a story!

But what the real fans want to know is: Is Harry in the book? Of course he is, and up to all his old tricks! This time Du Brul got the balance just right. There's exactly enough Harry, but not too much. And there were some neat new supporting characters added in this book as well.

Like I said, it's possible that absence has made my heart grow fonder, but I think Havoc is as good as anything Jack Du Brul has ever written. It may very well be his best yet. He sure better not make us wait several years for the next installment in this terrific series!

Rubenfeld off to a great start!

The Interpretation of Murder by Jed Rubenfeld

I don't especially consider myself a fan of historical fiction. But every now and then I stumble upon a novel that's purely entertaining. The Interpretation of Murder is one such novel, and I have to say that the depiction of New York in 1909 was my favorite part of the book. The city itself is like a character!

It's clear that debut novelist Rubenfeld did his research. Not just about the city, but also about his famous characters. The novel is set during the one and only visit of Sigmund Freud to America. Apparently, for the rest of his life Freud referred to Americans as "savages" and spoke disparagingly of the US. It's a true historical mystery, because no one knows what may have happened while Freud was here that so soured the man on this country and its people.

In the mystery of this book, Freud visits America with his desciple Carl Jung and gets involved with a murder. The psychologists--along with a fictional counterpart, Dr. Stratham Younger--are asked to consult on the case. Amazingly, Rubenfeld has stolen great chunks of the character's dialog from their real life writing and correspondence, lending a verisimilitude to their psychobabble. While the doctors are analyzing everyone they encounter, the case is being solved by Dr. Younger and wet-behind-the-ears Detective Littlemore.

Others have gone into the plot in more detail, and as convoluted as the story is, there doesn't seem to be much point in me doing it again. And that may be the novel's biggest flaw. The many, many twists and reversals in this psychological who-done-it keep you turning the pages at a lightning pace, but the final denouement takes nearly 50 pages to explain what really happened! That's a lot of 'splaining! It's a very convoluted story and in the end may stretch your credulity.

Be that as it may, this novel is well worth reading. I felt like a time machine had taken me back to the NY of 1909. It was just wonderful and fascinating--and this again from a non-history buff. Plus, Detective Littlemore is one of my favorite characters I've encountered in quite some time. I would LOVE to see him again! And I even feel I learned something, quite painlessly, about the psychological theories of Jung and Freud. I really hope Rubenfeld, a professor of law, returns to fiction again.

A menacing and atmospheric thriller!

Dark Gold by David Angsten

I love a good thriller, especially if it has an exotic location, a sunken treasure, sexy characters, and all kinds of menace. Dark Gold delivers all the above and more.

The story opens with three college grads, Jack, Rock, and Duff, about to embark on a world tour, a last hurrah before they have to get serious about real life. However, Jack's wandering older brother Dan has gone missing somewhere in Mexico. The last anyone has heard from him was an enigmatic postcard from Puerto Vallarta four months ago. So the three friends decide to start their trip in Mexico to hunt down Dan. As readers of The Ruins will attest, these quests never end well.

Early on, Jack has a scary encounter with a drug-dealing biker gang. No one will admit to knowing anything about Dan, but Jack does learn the name of a town that doesn't mean anything to him---Punta Perdida. None of the locals are willing to ferry Jack, Duff, and Rock there to investigate, for any price. But fate (and a beautiful woman) leads them to Leo Bellocheque, a wealthy Caribbean Islander with a million dollar yacht and a drop-dead gorgeous crew of two. Leo's intrigued by their story and offers them a lift.

Punta Perdida is a dangerous place. The local priest has been deafened and muted. Things aren't looking at all good for Dan. But Jack and his friends soon discover what enticed Dan to this desolate location; the lure of a fortune in sunken gold. Of course, in a place like Punta Perdida, you never know what else might be in the water...

I don't want to tell any more, because the joy of a novel like this is the plotting. The story is fast-paced and offered me big, gasp-out-loud surprises right up to the very end. There are definitely elements of the story that are familiar from many other books and films, but Angsten has done a great job making familiar thriller conventions seem fresh and new.

A big part of it is the writing, which is way above average. It's a pleasure to read a thriller with a nice turn of phrase and characters with real depth to them. I often felt a desire to learn more about these people and their back stories that wasn't always satisfied. You can't complain too loudly, though, about characters being overly interesting.

In the heading of this review I used the words menacing and atmospheric, which sound a lot better than creepy. But the truth of the matter is that Angsten creeped me out. Never has Mexico seemed more foreign or scarier. Seriously, I began to feel a little worried about my own friends down there! And just reading an underwater scene about something that's never seen during an early dive in the novel had the hair on the back of my neck standing up.

I read this book in two days. This is good and bad. I want more! I can't wait to see what Angsten comes up with next. What a great new discovery!

Couldn't put it down!

Beautiful Lies by Lisa Unger

If there's anything better than discoving a really great first-time author, I don't know what it is. I LOVED Beautiful Lies. Basically, once I'd picked up the book, I just couldn't put it down until I'd finished it.

The protagonist, Ridley, was so real. She told her story in the first person and addressed the reader directly. I swear, I could be friends with her.

And the story she had to tell... It started so plausably and got so convoluted. But I was with her every step of the way. Unger made me buy a fairly far-fetched plot. But mostly, I just wanted to know what was going to happen. What HAD already happened to this girl.

Here's how it begins: Ridley Jones is a successful freelance journalist in NY. She's a happy person with a loving family and a good life. One day a random act of heroism gets her photo splashed across the news for a week. In the wake of her brief celebrity, she receives a photograph in the mail. It's a photo of man she's never seen, a woman who bares a striking resemblance to her, and a two-year old girl who looks like she did as a baby--though she's never seen a photo of herself that young. The accompanying note says, "I think you're my daughter." Ridley is not adopted.

The story aqccelerates at a break-neck pace from there. But aside from great characters, and a strong plot, this is an exceptionally well-written thriller. It's being billed as a "literary thriller," and I don't know that I'd go that far, but this novel is way above average.

I can't wait to see what Lisa Unger writes next. I hope she writes fast!

Truly entertaining summer read

Lost and Found by Carolyn Parkhurst

I don't watch reality television--ever. Oddly enough, this is the third novel I've read featuring reality television, and Lost and Found is unquestionably the best of the three. As noted above, it isn't the most original concept. What makes the novel such a pleasure to read is Parkhurst's excellent execution.

The novel takes opens in the middle of the eponymous reality show, Lost and Found. It's very much like the Amazing Race with a few twists here and there. Teams of two travel the world decifering clues on a globe-trotting scavenger hunt. The twosomes include brothers, reunited high-school sweethearts, formerly gay born-again Christians, grown-up child stars looking for a comeback, etc. As the game moves from destination to destination, the point of view switches from player to player and even to the host occasionally.

And this is where Parkhurst shines. These characters could easily have been cardboard cutouts. Instead, she imbues a real depth and richness into each of the players. Getting inside the heads of each one just made the unfolding dramas so interesting.

Plus, it was a fun, fast-paced story. All in all, Parkhurst's superior writing makes this a superior and very entertaining summer read. I kept wondering how she would end the novel. When the end finally came, I found myself completely satisfied with the story told. What more could you ask?

I've found my literary alterego

Literacy and Longing in LA by Jennifer Kaufman & Karen Mack

On Saturday, I plowed through Literacy and Longing in LA, a debut novel by Jennifer Kaufman and Karen Mack. To be honest, it is basically chick lit. Good chick lit, but chick lit nonetheless. The protagonist is Dora, named after Eudora Welty, of course. She is a hard-core bibliophile. When life gets her down, she locks herself in her apartment with stacks of literature. She goes on book binges. She takes two-hour baths with a stack of books next to the tub. (People are calling asking if these authors know me.)

The real joy of this novel is Dora's ruminations on books, reading, different categories of readers, book clubs, specific books she's read or is reading. I turned every page wanting to know if I'd read what Dora had, and if I agreed with her assessments. And there were so many quotations I wanted to read aloud to bookish friends. I'll restrict myself to just two here:

"I collect new books the way my girlfriends buy designer handbags. Sometimes, I just like to know I have them and actually reading them is beside the point. Not that I don't eventually end up reading them one by one. I do. But the mere act of buying them makes me happy--the world is more promising, more fulfilling. It's hard to explain, but I feel, somehow, more optimistic. The whole act just cheers me up. "

And here:

"I like stories about lovers, seduction, sex, marriage, violence, murder, dreams, and death, and also stories that focus on the family with all its dysfunction and grief. I love writers who make their women characters independent, smart, and courageous but also passionate and romantic. I love plots about bitter old men and women who turn all soft and mushy for the love of a child. I love writers who focus on women who reach middle age and ask, 'Now what?' or lonely disappointed women who live in suburbia and can't get out, or authors who write about the pain of growing up, searching for identity. But most of all I love books about spontaneous love affairs that go wrong or veer off in uncharted territory. It's the sudden twists of fate that I like and the unexpected outcomes. Doesn't everyone?"

I need to memorize that speech for the next time someone asks me what I like to read!

Dora is far more attractive than any bookish girl I've ever met. She has too much money and has bought into the whole Angelino lifestyle to an alarming degree. Nonetheless, what bibliophile girl could fail to identify with her quest for love in a bookstore? For God's sake, the novel has literary footnotes and a 9 page book list (of references made within the text) at the back. I loved it!

Engrossing--but gross

The Ruins by Scott Smith

The beginning of this novel is a lot like the show "Lost." Four young Americans and a Greek and a German friend are taking a little hike into the Mexican jungle. They are looking for the German's brother, who ran off chasing after a hot archeologist chick. As soon as they enter the jungle, weird stuff starts to happen.

But then, somewhere in the 100-page vicinity, you start to figure out what is really going on. And from then on out, this book is pure horror. Stephen King territory. And it was psychologically freakin' harrowing. I had a hard time finishing the book. It's difficult to imagine something so implausible could be so scary, but this book scared the hell out of me. At times it made my physically nauseous. Does that make it a good book? I have no idea. Read at your own risk - not for the faint of heart.

Best thriller of the year!

Black Order by James Rollins

I've been reading James Rollins since his very first novel. I look forward to each one with anticipation months ahead of its publication. (Thank God he's prolific!) Truthfully, I like some of them better than others. This latest, Black Order, is an unequivocal slam dunk. I loved everything about it from start to finish.

One thing Rollins has done right is bring back Painter Crowe in a more significant roll. I've had a warm spot for him since Sandstorm. And in his second outing, I feel that I know Gray Pierce better than I did. How wonderful that these individuals have become like friends and I see their characters deepen and grow from book to book. He introduces a new character in this book that has become a favorite. I really hope we get to see her again!

But the best thing about The Black Order is the plot. I couldn't turn pages fast enough! I plowed through the book in two days and was then sad it was over. What a thrill ride! The novel is complex enough that I can't do it justice trying to sum it up in a paragraph. There were several different intertwined stories spanning the globe, from Asia to Europe to Africa to America. Rollins ties in Nazi science projects dating back to WWII to South African mythological beasts. And even though there were Nazi bad guys, this book has a lot of shades of gray and things aren't necessarily what they seem at first glance.

As always, there was fascinating, cutting-edge science. Each book has some bit of factual science that literally makes my jaw drop, and I think: I have to learn more about that! This one was no exception, but there were also major philosophical aspects to the story. Really, it's a book that has everything--non-stop action, terrific characters, a little romance, a little humor, some good scares, and a lot to make you think. I can't recommend it highly enough!

Without exaggeration, the worst book I have ever read

Natural Selection by Dave Freedman

Okay, I've spent enough time on Amazon to have seen plenty of ranting, hyperbolic book reviews. That said--and in all seriousness--this is the worst book I have ever read. And it pains me to say that. I've been looking forward to reading Natural Selection for months. I have a background in marine biology (Smithsonian Institution) and was the editor of a scuba magazine for years. Simply put, there's absolutely nothing I love more than a good, trashy, sea monster novel. I'm not a snob about these things. But Natural Selection was just terrible in every way and on every level that it is possible for a book to be terrible.

The characters are all one-dimensional. Each one has a motivation that can be summed up in a single sentence. And just in case you don't get it, the sentence is repeated over and over. One character has trust issues. A married couple wants to save money to start a family (because two gainfully employed professionals can't possibly get pregnant without a bankroll). Another man wants the respect of his peers. That is all you really need to know.

As unbelievable as the characters are, the dialog is even worse. It is simply horrifying. This is the consummation of the obligatory romance building throughout the novel...

"Lisa, my...hard drive hasn't run in a very long time."
"I'm not just looking for...a quick reboot."

Sadly, that's not a parody. It's quoted directly from the novel.

But worse than the tissue paper-thin characters, worse than the laughable dialog, is just the sheer stupidity of this novel. Yes, part of the problem is that I actually know a lot about marine biology. And biology. And anything. God, this book is dumb! Biologist A suggests using thermal imaging equipment to find the flying killer manta and biologist B asks, "What's that?" Um, duh. Not to mention that it's a cold-blooded animal with a body temp that matches its surroundings! Yes, that sounds nit-picky, but page after page of stupidity just adds up. And the writing and editing is extraordinarily sloppy, which doesn't help matters.

I realize that there are dumb books out there. I know there's a market. I've read and thoroughly enjoyed many of them. But this book is just BAD. Anyone with a grasp of junior high school biology could point out how bogus the science in this book is and how shoddy the research. And even if you don't care about science or realism, it's just bad storytelling. Don't waste your money!