Tuesday, November 30, 2010

On Djibouti, Unbroken, Room, Lord of Misrule and Moonlight Mile

Book 99: Djibouti by Elmore Leonard

Detroit, Vegas, Miami, even Oklahoma, but Djibouti?

The setting is off in Elmore Leonard's newest novel. Way off.

And as a result, nothing really works. Not the snappy dialogue. Or the oh-so cool characters. This one wrong note -- a really loud note -- reverberates throughout the entire symphony.

We find ourselves in Djibouti following an Oscar-winning filmmaker and her assistant who have arrived to do a documentary on pirates. But at some point the novel becomes a story about an American-born al qaeda sympathizer who plans to blown up a freighter. Soon after the clinker becomes a clunker.

Sorry, Dutch, but Oklahoma should remain your most exotic setting.

Book 100: Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

Critics everywhere should thank Laura Hillenbrand. She just made the job of assembling our list of The Best Books of 2010 easier.

Unbroken has secured a place on my list without breaking a sweat.

Unbroken is the story of Louie Zamperini. A California native, Zamperini was the highest American finisher in the 5,000 meter run at the Berlin Olympics. His Olympic dreams are ended when, with the outbreak of World War II, he finds himself on the crew of a bomber in the Pacific.

Zamperini's plane is shot down. He and the pilot survive harrowing weeks on a disintegrating raft only to become prisoners of the Japanese. His life as a prisoner of war is marked by brutality, terror and humiliation.

Even when the war ends, and Zamperini is freed, his struggles are not over. Plagued by nightmares and a deep-rooted anger, Zamperini finds consolation in alcohol. He drifts from job to job and his marriage is falling apart.

Enter a young Billy Graham. Strong-armed into attending Graham's tent revival by his wife, Zamperini remembers a promise he made to God were he to survive the war. The sub-title captures the essence of Zamperini's experience -- survival, resilience and redemption.

Were it a movie of the week, it would seem too hackneyed, too earnest, too predictable to be true. But in Hillenbrand's hands Zamperini's story is none of these things. Instead, it soars. Hillenbrand is easily one of the finest storytellers, working in non-fiction, today and Unbroken is easily among the best books of this or any other year.

Book 101: Room by Emma Donoghue

I was skeptical. There were too many glowing reviews, too many bookstore clerks telling me "I loved this book," too many friends asking, "Have you read it?"

The answer is an enthusiastic yes, I have read it. And I love this book, too.

Here's what I admire most about it -- Donoghue has created a work of singular invention. There aren't a hand full of writers who could pull off this high wire act. The wise wouldn't try.

Room is a powerful work of the imagination and a tribute to the power of a mother's love to nurture a child amid a daunting and horrific situation.

Book 102: Lord of Misrule by Jaimy Gordon

Lord of Misrule is a horse. One of many that appears in this award-winning novel about a down-at-its-heels West Virginia racetrack. It is no mistake that Gordon's novel draws its title from a horse named after the individual selected to rule over the annual Christmas Feast of Fools.

With each section, framed by a horse race, we are introduced to new characters and to new horses, who are also important characters in this novel of greed and ambition and hope. Lord of Misrule is a finely layered novel of nuance and observation (of people and horses). It manages to be both elegant and coarse in the way of horses and horse people.

I greatly enjoy, and value, novels that take me into a unexplored world. I have watched horse races at Keeneland in Lexington, Kentucky. Bet on their outcome. Taken my lunch -- slumming, really -- in the track kitchen. And I have always known that immediately at hand, and yet light years distant, was another world.

Gordon shares that world with the reader in Lord of Misrule.

I have yet to read the other four books that made the shortlist for the National Book Award. Even once I have read those books I may not have a clear idea of which book, among the five, was the best.

I do know that Lord of Misrule is a deserving winner for its authenticity and the quality of its writing.

Book 103: Moonlight Mile by Dennis Lehane

Thank you, Dennis Lehane. For years I have requested that you write a sequel to your novels featuring Kenzie and Gennaro. I liked Mystic River, but Shutter (Shudder?) Island and The Given Day felt flat.

Now, in Moonlight Mile, not only are Kenzie and Gennaro back, but they revisit their most famous case -- the disappearance of Amanda McCready from Gone Baby Gone.

It is more than I dared ask for, and the book does not disappoint. It is a terrific read because of your sense of setting and the characters that populate this novel. Kenzie and Gennaro (now Kenzie, herself) are intriguing characters filled with doubt and imperfections and moral certainties they find troubling.

Moonlight Mile can be read as a finale for these two characters. I hope that is not the case, but if it is, you have left me satisfied as a reader and a fan.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Is The Reversal Connelly's best book?

Book 98: The Reversal by Michael Connelly

Is The Reversal Michael Connelly's best book?

If it is -- and it may well be -- that's saying something. Connelly has been at the top of his game a long time. Most writers lost their snap this many books into their career, but Connelly keeps it fresh.

The Reversal features Connelly's two leading characters -- Harry Bosch, the tough-as-nails L.A. homicide detective, and Mickey Haller, the defense attorney whose is office is the backseat of his Lincoln.

The novel is part courtroom drama, part police procedural. An appeals court has kicked the conviction of Jason Jessup, who has been in prison for 24 years for the murder of a 12-year-old girl. A DNA sample on the victim's dress doesn't belong to Jessup.

Soon Jessup is headed back to L.A. to face a new trial. Haller is enlisted to serve as a special prosecutor in the case. In turn, he recruits Bosch to serve as special investigator.

On its surface, there isn't anything to the story you haven't read before or seen in the movies or on a bad TV show. But Connelly, with great pacing, vivid scenes and characters who jump off the page, transcends the genre. This is a book, a story, that compels you to read it and it's a damn gripping read.

The question remains: Is The Reversal Connelly's best book? At least, until his next book is released the answer is yes.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Leavy reveals the man behind the myth in The Last Boy

Book 96: The Last Boy, Mickey Mantle and the End of America's Childhood by Jane Leavy

Bed wetter. Womanizer. Alcoholic.

Mickey Mantle was all these things. He was also -- for all too brief a time -- the finest baseball player in the game. No one could hit the ball farther or harder than the kid from Commerce. He ran the bases faster than anyone and, if he was a so-so fielder, he ran down balls that others could only dream of reaching.

His radiant smile, chiseled body, tousled blonde hair and an easy, unforced modesty that led him to keep his head down as he rounded the bases after another home run, made him one of the most popular men in the game, among both players and the fans. Mickey was an icon.

Jane Leavy explores the reality behind the icon in her book, The Last Boy. This is a much different biography than the one she wrote on Sandy Koufax in 2002. That was an elegant book, but Koufax was an elegant man. The Last Boy is a coarser work, because Mantle could be, was, a coarse man.

Leavy's biography of the Oklahoma great invokes laughter in one passage and sadness in the next. She is unsparing in serving up details that strip away the facade created by Yankee publicists and an uncritical press, allowing us to see Mantle as man rather than myth. Fragile. Vulnerable. Crude.

If The Last Boy is not as fine a work as Sandy Koufax, it is a necessary one. Leavy allows us to see all of Mantle's greatness and all his faults. In doing so, she leaves us with the portrait of a man that we can continue to admire, yet also pity.

Book 97: Worth Dying For by Lee Child

Bad guys. Really bad guys. A cowed Nebraska farming community. A half-dozen hoods from Las Vegas. And Jack Reacher.

This isn't a spoiler, but Reacher walks away in the end. The bad guys aren't so lucky.

That's all you need to know about Worth Dying For. That and it's a quick, fun read.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl is a sensation

My recent reading encompasses three books that range from disappointing to the sensational with something squarely in the middle.

Book 93: Our Kind of Traitor by John le Carre

The middle ground is occupied by John le Carre, who is still writing about Russians. But these days, the Russians are international criminals rather than espionage agents. That distinction alone means that Our Kind of Traitor will emerge as a disappointment to some readers.

One wonders why le Carre, in these recent books, has not returned to the past. Surely there are more stories to tell of Smiley and Karla or, at least, men and women similar to these two adversaries that lived among le Carre's best work.

One wonders, but one knows the answer. Le Carre's conscience leads him to write about the times we inhabit now. Times that he finds so lacking in moral fiber or integrity. He has, for example, explored the baseness and greed that motivate the pharmaceutical giants. In Our Kind of Traitor he casts an angry eye upon governments and politicians who have grown cozy with international criminals.

Our Kind of Traitor
is an entertaining work. Le Carre's skills as a storyteller have been finely honed through years of writing. It is amazing to observe how much of this novel is confined to dialogue amid ill lit rooms inside safe houses and yet le Carre creates a skein of tension that slowly builds to a conclusion that, if not entirely satisfying, is entirely true to its tale.

Book 94: Bloody Crimes, The Chase for Jefferson Davis and the Death Pageant for Lincoln's Corpse by James Swanson

Sadly, because I so enjoyed Swanson's Manhunt about the 12-day search for Lincoln's killer, I find Bloody Crimes a bloody disappointment.

The two stories, Lincoln's death pageant and the search for Jefferson Davis, the President of the Confederacy, do not work well in parallel.

The story of Lincoln's death pageant is a dry recitation of logistics that could have been summarized in a magazine article. The search for Davis is a compelling story that warranted its own book.

Book 95: The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

The Windup Girl is a sensation. Co-winner of the 2010 Hugo Award, it it one of the best science fiction stories I have read in years and certainly ranks among the best first novels -- of any genre -- that I have read.

Comparisons have been made to the early work of William Gibson. Those comparisons are apt. Like Gibson, Bacigalupi takes the stuff of today and envisions a future so close to hand that the reader can almost touch it. And in creating this future, Bacigalupi fashions a story that is visionary and immediate and frightening.

We can smell the stink of tomorrow.

The stink from over-ripe durians rotting on a vendor's cart. And the stink from greedy men unleashing genetic havoc upon an unsuspecting earth.

The Windup Girl is set in Krung Thep (Bangkok). The earth's rising seas are held at bay by makeshift dikes. Chesires, a breed of genetically manipulated cats that wink in and out of one's vision, prowl the dark alleys. Men and women fear blister rust and genehacked weevils. Seed banks are guarded as we once guarded the gold of Fort Knox.

Bacigalupi weaves a wondrous tale of competing interests. Virtually everyone is corrupt and everyone is scrabbling just to remain a live. The narrative is gripping, but it is the future -- gene ripped and gene hacked and a little mad --which Bacigalupi envisions that is so compelling.

That and the windup girl of the title. Emiko is a creche grown member of the New People. Not human, better in most ways. She's fighting for her life and dignity against overwhelming odds. The windup girls makes for an unlikely hero in this gripping story of a future that's feels all to near.