Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Wolf at the Door by Jack Higgins **

What was the biggest terrorist story ... before 9/11? Irish Republican Army? Russian Mafia? Algerian arms dealers? The Russian secret service? Why bother to decide, just throw them all together in a plot that is both transparent and confused ... and you have The Wolf at the Door - the latest novel by Jack Higgins, who I suspect is stuck in the twentieth century, as suggested by his publicity photo sitting in front of a typewriter - and a manual one at that!

The story - not actually a thriller as there is no suspense or tension - follows an aborted assassination plot from several points of view, none of which I found particularly engaging. This is certainly a case where the synopsis far exceeds the reading. Lots better is available, unless you've read everything else about the cold war and miss it terribly.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Lost Art of Gratitude by Alexander McCall Smith ***

The books by Alexander McCall Smith are steeped in profession and place, as exemplified by the successful series set in Botswana: No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency: A Book for Today: Tea Time for the Traditionally Built by Alexander McCall Smith. While the author's fascination with Botswana adds to the charm of that series, his familiarity with his home country and profession, Scotland and philosophy respectively, leave the series of Isabel Dalhousie, a Scottish philosopher, flat. The author's many descriptions of Scotland and observations on philosophers seem mechanical and strained - descriptions by a native either modestly bragging or trying to imagine what might interest a visitor.

The Lost Art of Gratitude is a travelogue by a local guide full of pride and inside observations, and without the life and excitement of a genuine visitor seeing everything for the first time. This, together with a plot centered on philosophical introspection, left me disappointed, especially since I so enjoyed the Botswana series.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Homer & Langley by E L Doctorow ****

Homer & Langley by E L Doctorow is ostensibly the story of two brothers born around the beginning of the twentieth century, following them through WWI, the roaring 20s, the depression, WWII, the hippies of the 60s, and beyond. If this is what you expected, you would not be disappointed, for Doctorow packs the book with vignettes from all these periods with observations on technology, politics, and urban culture. But Homer & Langley is not historical fiction.

The two brothers, independently wealthy, live in a large home on Fifth Avenue facing Central Park. But this is not a story of wealth and advantage. The brothers are recluses and protesters, taking on the water company, Con Edison, and the police. They are more comfortable with hippies than their neighbors. But this is not a story of counter-culture.

Homer is blind and Langley is OCD. This is a story of two brothers and their long decline into disability and death. If there is some universal truth here, it is not presented in bright, flashing banners like some prurient web site. The truth is more traditional, before pop-up and animated GIFs: an intricate story of people, simultaneously unique and universal.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Evidence by Jonathan Kellerman ****

Evidence by Jonathan Kellerman begins with the murder of a couple apparently in the midst of making love on the top floor of an unfinished mansion in the exclusive Holmby Hills section of Los Angeles. From there, like a chaotic fractal, the plot branches and expands, with each vector revealing more directions for further investigation. Each sub-plot expands into further sub-sub-plots, seemingly recursively without end. Just a sampling: the rumored, long-ago disappearance of a blond girl seen in the company of an oil-rich playboy from south-east Asia, the fruitless FBI investigation of eco-terrorism in the pacific northwest, a high-school romance gone bad, the murder of a part-timer in the Medical Examiner's office, and another murder of a crazy old man who believed the unfinished mansion rightfully belonged to him.

But, in a wonderfully Dickensian fashion, none of these are feints or red-herrings. For in the end all is revealed to be part of a single unified story!

A fine tale of relationships and Los Angeles.