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Rebellion: The History of England from James I to the Glorious Revolution
Rebellion: The History of England from James I to the Glorious Revolution
Offered by Macmillan
Price: $12.74

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars England, wealthy and wanton, October 21, 2014
Atmospherics is what Peter Ackroyd does best. And he does it so well.

In all his histories but especially in “Rebellion,” Ackroyd paints a vivid portrait that manages to come alive with the sights, smells and sounds of the period, in this book Jacobean England.

How's this for verisimilitude: Ackroyd recounts the famous diarist of the period Samuel Pepys sitting down to a dinner of “marrow bones and a leg of mutton, a loin of veal and a dish of fowl together with two dozen larks.” Offered a serving of fish, Ackroyd tells us that Pepys declined and recorded later in his diary that the sturgeon seemed to be “creeping” with “many little worms, which I suppose was through the staleness of the pickle.”

“Rebellion” is the latest installment in the author’s multi-volume chronicle of Great Britain and it’s a big, bouncy slice of British history. He is constantly peppering this part of the massive chronicle with smallish, memorable details such as the description by a member of court of the newly enthroned James I as being someone who was a “robust” and “fluent conversationalist” but also a king who seemed to be “forever fiddling” with his codpiece.

From the death of Elizabeth I in 1603 and ascension of James I to the removal of his grandson James II in 1688 the book gives us the story of the House of Stuart. James I was the son of Mary Queen of Scots and as the monarch to usher Britain into the 17th century, James unified England and Scotland, no small achievement.

The century was in many ways a prosperous one for Britain. It was also fractious and turbulent. The Stuart century saw the execution of a king, Cromwell’s rise and fall and the bloody civil war that became the blot on the dictator’s legacy. Ackroyd closes the book on this chapter in English history with downfall of James II.

History is usually written from the perspective of the royals, the class in power and the elite, those who rule. Ackroyd does something more democratic and inclusive. He depicts the leaders and their influence and foibles. But he also portrays what life was like and gives full representation to the not-so-exalted, the men and women who lived out a way of life mostly imposed upon them. And if for no other reason, Ackroyd’s careful rendering of ordinary life earns “Rebellion” a spot up near the top of your booklist . . . and hungry with anticipation for what life’s promise will be in England in the 18th Century.
In a word: Lively
Comment Comments (3) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Oct 23, 2014 12:38 PM PDT

Those Who Wish Me Dead
Those Who Wish Me Dead
Offered by Hachette Book Group
Price: $12.99

15 of 18 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Fast paced but a little too fanciful, June 23, 2014
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I’m tempted to cut author Michael Koryta some slack. “Those Who Wish Me Dead” thrums with enough energy and action that if you’re like me, you’ll almost but not quite overlook all the things implausible he crams into his narrative of grit and survival.

The opening sentence is a zinger, “On the last day of Jace Wilson’s life, the fourteen-year-old stood on a quarry ledge staring at cool, still water and finally understood something his mother had told him years before . . .”

The rock quarry happens to be the wrong place and the kid is there at the wrong time when he witnesses a gruesome murder and is spotted by the killers. He’s quickly slipped into a witness protection program and hidden with a new name and identity in a Montana wilderness survival school developed for teens in trouble.

“You truly will not let the boy be pursued here? You believe you can guarantee that,” asks the survival program’s leader Ethan Serbin. “One hundred percent,” replies Jamie Bennett when proposing to hide the boy in Serbin’s program. You can bet right then that the killers are already in hot pursuit and closing in on their teenage prey.

The killers, two hellishly evil brothers, have already left a trail of slaughter and they’re as determined as a pair of hungry relentless predators running a terrified rabbit to ground. That pursuit is one hell of a thrill ride that includes a rampaging forest fire, a lighting storm so palatable is almost makes you react with a flinch and a desperate getaway on horseback through the burning terrain.

All of it is a great pump of adrenalin – it’s just too bad that Koryta keeps throwing “surprises” and reversals at you that verge on derailing the story and turning a truly gripping read into something that almost feels lifted from the pages last Saturday’s comic book. What might have been riveting gets doused with too much melodrama.
In a word: Almost
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jul 18, 2014 4:05 AM PDT

The Goldfinch: A Novel (Pulitzer Prize for Fiction)
The Goldfinch: A Novel (Pulitzer Prize for Fiction)
Offered by Hachette Book Group
Price: $6.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Purloined picture, storytelling that’s pitch-perfect, May 12, 2014
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Theo, main character. Boris, sidekick. Goldfinch, maguffin.

Those are the three moving pieces that come together to give shape and form to this amazing story and this pleasingly long novel that is likely to engross you more than any other book you’ve read in I’d say a very long time.

After finishing “The Goldfinch,” It occurred to me that being around Boris – as Theo is for a great part of his life – must be something like tweezing out a splinter, it may not feel that good but it’s satisfying to know that it’s good for you.

Theo is the heart and soul of the novel, but Boris is the more electric of the two. Theo, in Tartt’s capable hands, is as compelling as any character in modern fiction, but suffice it to say that Boris is the character who will make an unforgettable impression on you and will stick in your memory (and I think there’s an important distinction between simply not forgetting and remembering. And Boris will be long-remembered).

It would be a disservice to the “Goldfinch” to mention the tropes, metaphors and other stylistic quirks that (only rarely) I wished had been better. Here, instead are three of the main reasons I enjoyed the book so much:

The Characterizations: You can look forward to meeting and getting to know Theo, Boris, Hobie, Mrs. Barbour and Xandra among many more. All are individuals, who leap off the page, as they say.

The Dialogue: To me authors sometimes have a keen ear for great dialogue but may not always be so good at giving different characters a distinctive voice; by that I mean too often characters speak the way people really talk but they tend to sound one like the other. In the Goldfinch, you always know and can easily identify who’s talking – Theo, Boris, Mrs. Barbour, Pippa, Hobie – without attribution. That makes for some really fun reading.

The Story: “Great Expectations,” “Adventures of Augie March” “Them.” I had been of a mind that as for narrative force, it doesn’t get any better than those three. “Goldfinch” proved me wrong.

So, just go get it and read it so that you can talk about it with family and friends and urge them to do as you did and give yourself over to the world inhabited by Theo and Boris.

In a word: Knowing

American Romantic
American Romantic
Price: $9.10

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A world where failure is more commanding than success, May 12, 2014
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This review is from: American Romantic (Kindle Edition)
Harry Sanders has an almost exquisite appreciation for the role ambiguity plays in a person’s life. Yet he remains the American romantic, the career diplomat who lives an examined life. He suffers no regrets, asks for no second chances.

In Harry Sanders, Ward Just presents us with an American archetype, a privileged son of East Coast liberals, the product of the New England leaders of finance and government who gather for Sunday table and afternoon cocktails in rooms that are appointed with Regency furniture and decorated with paintings by American masters. Harry comes of age in the early 1960s. He joins the Diplomatic Service and lives his life abroad. One of his first postings is to Indo China where our government is sending advisors who become the first to learn the futility of American involvement in Vietnamese affairs.

In Saigon, Harry has a passionate, intensely emotional affair with a young German woman tortured by her country’s war history who is in many ways Harry’s opposite. Her pragmatism and allure captivate Harry throughout his long life.

Sent on a secret, misguided mission to meet with the North Vietnamese insurgents and feel out their appetite for appeasement, Harry is injured. He kills a man and the misadventure leaves him with lasting physical and emotional scars.

Harry is posted to different corners of the world. He rises to ambassador but is never given the prestigious embassies, the marquee assignments career diplomats covet. He marries. He and his wife live the life of expats. Harry the diplomat, Kay the diplomat’s wife. They attend the foreign embassy receptions, host visiting members of Congress, take on worthy in-country causes. Their married life contains joy, disappointment and tragedy. There’s a hint that Kay harbors secrets and may lead a life more mysterious than anyone would ever expect.

Like the arc of their marriage, Harry’s career moves inexorably forward, in different locales where much is the same. Asked to explain what his long career in Foreign Service had taught him, Harry responds, “Time is always in motion, like the waves of a great sea. And failure is more commanding than success.”

Nothing is ever dull in the world Just creates. Like Graham Greene, Just gives destiny the upper hand. Every book Just writes holds a scene, a description, an observation that sticks with me, a mental tickle that endures: You can almost smell the ink and thick sweet stink of the composing wax that go into putting together a small town newspaper in “A Family Trust.” In “Rodin’s Daughter,” a character has a podiatrist clip his toenails. The simple act as described by Just tells you more about the man’s circumstances and background than ten pages of exposition by most any other author. A set piece in “American Romantic” involves a Chinese mandarin holding court in the back of an exotically appointed Datsun minivan. The incident has echoes of Conrad. It’s mysterious, almost surreal, just short of mesmerizing.

In “American Romantic” Just breathes life into a character and sends that person out into a complicated world to deal with a future molded by the past and shaped by an uncertain destiny. As always, Just delivers a story that is both nuanced and compelling.

In a word: Engaging

The Accident
The Accident
Offered by Random House LLC
Price: $10.99

3.0 out of 5 stars A little more substance with those thrills, May 1, 2014
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This review is from: The Accident (Kindle Edition)
Author Chris Pavone describes a main character in “The Accident” as being more like a fast-food hamburger than a four-star meal.

Seems to me that’s a pretty good way to talk about Pavone’s latest thriller, a somewhat tasty morsel, but without a whole lot of substance, nuance or lasting flavor. Not something you’re going to savor long in your memory.

Day breaks and over the course of what to me is one stupendously contrived 24-hour period, an author-in-hiding in Zurich frets over the manuscript of his tell-all book. His is a book that – if truth wins out – represents a grave threat to world order as well as to some powerful individuals, corporations and governments.

The author-in-hiding was both an insider and participant in a mess of serious double-dealing that he has now chronicled in his manuscript, “The Accident.” But now he’s the apologist, motivated by remorse, but more so by the soul-cleansing redemption that coming clean promises.

In Copenhagen, New York, and other global locales, CIA spooks along with power-brokers working in the media, literary and publishing world are also thinking – obsessing – over the manuscript. These government and publishing predators either hope to cash in on the book’s publication, or are threatened with ruin if “The Accident” makes it to print.

Two camps exist: those who hope to gain if the book is published and those who will kill to prevent its publication. For me, each camp is populated with characters as one-dimensional as cardboard cutouts. All of them are wily, witty and wise but all in the same manner, acting and speaking as if cut from the same cloth; as a result it’s difficult to keep straight who’s talking. There’s a long list of characters. Nearly all the characters are expendable and too often for my taste someone seems to be introduced so he or she can be summarily erased, violently. I lost tab but there’s an extremely high body count. (A fun exercise might be to tally the actual number of corpses. My guess is you’ll be surprised at how many there are.)

The one person we are led to care for most is Isabel Reed, a literary agent who is reading the final pages of “The Accident” as the book begins. You’ll need to stick with the book until the final pages to learn if Isabel is among the survivors and if the manuscript that has already buried so many makes its way into print.

Pavone sets out to take you on a thrill ride. And, okay, the pages did seem to flip rather quickly. But, depending on your tolerance for the implausible, he delivers a book that’s hard to put down or one you’ll be tempted to throw across the room.
In a word: Far-fetched

An Officer and a Spy: A novel
An Officer and a Spy: A novel
by Robert Harris
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $17.68
145 used & new from $3.12

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A novel that rings with truth, April 24, 2014
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Robert Harris manages in “An Officer and a Spy” to construct from the historical record – diaries, letters, transcripts – a novel that is a harrowing account of the “Affaire Dreyfus” and a work of fiction that absolutely rings with the sound of truth.

One of France’s most shameful stories, the case of Alfred Dreyfus, an innocent Jew accused of spying for the Germans, is as affecting in Harris’ retelling as it must have been in Paris in the 1890s. Conspiracy, scandal, secret agreements, even death under suspicious circumstances, the story is as compelling as it is timeless, and Harris is a master in the telling.

Harris reconstructs the story from the point of view of Georges Picquart, the recently appointed counterintelligence officer who begins to suspect that Dreyfus is innocent and pursues truth with determination and as much zeal as those who have accused Dreyfus. The story unfolds chronologically as facts build upon facts and the certainty of the victim’s innocence grows.

The story is gripping in its telling and Harris is masterful in the writing with passages such as this description of a seaside fish market, “I stop for a minute to watch as a catch is brought in and tipped over the counter: red mullet, sea bream, hake, mackerel. In a nearby pen are half a dozen turtles, their jaws tied shut with string, still alive, but blinded to prevent them escaping. They make noise like cobbles being cracked together as they clamber over one another, desperate to regain the water they can sense but now longer see.”

For me the novel has earned a place on a bookshelf beside Capote’s “In Cold Blood” for constructing reality using the conventions of fiction. In “An Officer and a Spy” Harris is at his best.

In a Word: Compelling

Bowflex Boost Activity Tracker
Bowflex Boost Activity Tracker
Price: $55.50
10 used & new from $25.00

2.0 out of 5 stars A late-comer with some catching up to do, April 23, 2014
Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
The Bowflex Boost is a late entry in the fitness game, following Nike, FitBit and the Striiv Play, the device I’ve worn for the last 18 months. To me the late-comer feels like a rush-to-market product that has some catching up to do.

It’s a fairly basic pedometer, encased in a bulky, black wrist band that syncs to an iPhone application that records the standards: steps, distance and calories burned. The iPhone interface has red / gray industrial look that displays the information you really want: number of steps, distance and calories burned in a miniscule (what looks to be) four-point type. On the better side, the price is right. And with 14 rows of holes in the band the strap adjusts to nicely fit almost any wrist size. And the Boost only needs charging about once a week, which is a plus compared to some of the other devices. (I charge my Striiv Play overnight, every night).

My biggest issue is the accuracy of the pedometer. As I mentioned, I’ve worn a Striiv Play for more than a year and I completely trust Striiv’s step count. I’ve calibrated it by actually counting steps and by measuring distance traveled. It’s always been right-on. Not so with Boost, which seems to vary markedly from the Striiv count. Today at late morning my Striiv says I’ve walked 3,919 steps. The Boost has recorded 7,317 steps over the same period. That’s almost a two-for-one swing. I put money on the accuracy of the Striive versus the Boost. .

No bells and whistles here. If you’re looking for something that’s hip (hep), stylish and with I’m- a-member-of-the-Club appeal, you’re not going to be happy with this puppy.
In a word: Disappointed

Inside a Pearl: My Years in Paris
Inside a Pearl: My Years in Paris
by Edmund White
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $19.26
65 used & new from $3.58

4.0 out of 5 stars Eating asparagus with your fingers and other things to do while in France, April 23, 2014
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Assuming you’re American and if you’re planning to visit Paris and don’t want to raise eyebrows, mind your table manners. In France that means always grasping your fork with your left hand. No switching hands allowed, unless you don’t mind being branded gauche.

At a party do not ask someone what he does or where he’s from. Neither is important to the French. Eating asparagus with your fingers, in France, is civilized. Eating asparagus with knife and fork, almost barbaric, says Edmund White, in his very worldly, candid and often explicit memoir, a dissection of French life and culture “Inside a Pearl.”

The title describes what he experienced and how White, then 43, felt during the decade and a half beginning in 1983 he lived in the City of Light. Paris, he says, “seems so calm after New York. As if I’d already died and gone to heaven. It’s like living inside a pearl.”

These were very good years for White, prolific and filled with pleasure. He didn’t speak French when he arrived; yet these were the years he delivered his acclaimed biography of Jean Genet, wrote about French thinkers Rimbaud and Proust and was named to the French Order of Arts & Letters.

The book is gossipy. White moved in the best circles and he drops names and anecdotes like rose petals. He’s a keen observer; even more so it seems, a good listener. And he certainly enjoys sex and relishes talking about his conquests and encounters in unbridled detail. (By the time he arrives in Paris he’s already had sex, he estimates, with upwards of 3,000 men.)

On occasion the memoir reminded me of “Must You Go,” Antonia Fraser’s disappointing and surprisingly lifeless accounting of her relationship with Harold Pinter. Her colorless story seemed to consist of calendar entries of lunches and dinners she had with friends and acquaintances in which she described more often what people were wearing than what they were saying. At times, incidents and anecdotes from “Inside a Pearl” similarly feel like snippets lifted unedited from a diary.

But that’s only occasionally. More often, there’s much to relish in the stories he has to tell about the people he meets and the city that intoxicates him, a place where “the rains never let up, but they were gentle mists, really, as if the landscape were sprayed with an old fashioned gold-mesh atomizer attached to a cut-glass perfume flask the color of amethyst.”

White left New York to leave the AIDS crisis behind, but death followed him and he writes about mortality and the loss of people who were very much part of his life very movingly. I appreciate White for his insight, his mastery and his talents of observation. White has written better books. There are passages that droop. But to me, “Inside a Pearl” has flashes of his best writing. At his best, he’s hard to equal.

In a word: Heady

The Good Boy
The Good Boy
Offered by Macmillan
Price: $8.89

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Boy, dog, amazing journey, November 27, 2013
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This review is from: The Good Boy (Kindle Edition)
Take your pick, the good boy of the book’s title is 11 year-old Joel Murphy or his K9 companion Butchie, a 100-pound German shepherd-Belgian Malinois mix. Both are fully realized creations that grab your affection as much as your attention.

Strong characters portrayed with all the complexity of real people make “The Good Boy” your good read.

This is the story of Joel and his Chicago family, his police officer father Pete, who racks up a dubious history of bending the law as much as enforcing it. (Butch is Pete’s canine partner.) There is Joel’s mother Sarah, who is burdened by a too-heavy weight of grief, mistrust and self-doubt. Joel’s sister is McKenna. It’s her teenage rebelliousness that ignites the story. Joel is at the center of the story. He’s an observant kid who inhabits a world beyond his years, someone who inhales (and catalogues) information as if it were the breath of life. And Butchie, a furry fury when need be.

But of all the characters, the most sharply etched is an overripe pole dancer who has trouble keeping her balance named Elexus who dances, yaks and clamors her way right into your heart with her resolute individuality. None of what she says is quotable here but the oaths and expletives that fly out of her mouth ring true with logic and astonishing equanimity.

A story as gritty as Chicago’s underbelly gives the book its traction, its power to take hold and not let go. Joel with Butchie in tow follows McKenna to a teen bash where illegal substances and intruding gang members stir up a confrontation that explodes into violence. Butch, trained to be a canine enforcer lunges in with sudden, disastrous results. Boy and dog flee. They take to the streets of Chicago. It’s an act of courage, an odyssey that Joel understands will lead him and Butchie away from home and safety. Stuffed in Joel’s backpack is a dog-eared (Joel wonders about the term) copy of “White Fang.” The book becomes the boy’s touchstone.

A story about a boy and his dog, this is a thriller for adults only, intense and ultimately hugely satisfying in its narrative force. Joel and Butchie take a number of wrong turns in their journey through a Chicago wasteland. Schwegel never falters as she drives straight and true to the novel’s powerful conclusion.

In a word: Wow-wee

The Last Judgement of Tony Blair (Kindle Single)
The Last Judgement of Tony Blair (Kindle Single)
Price: $0.99

4.0 out of 5 stars In which he proposes a heavenly reorg and better communications, November 25, 2013
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The Brits spell judgment with and extra “e” (judgement). We’re the ones who had to be different and probably for the sake of expediency, dropped what we figured was an extraneous vowel.

The point, you ask.

The point is that as with language, we Americans have a different view of the world than our British friends. The art of politics, too, is practiced differently on the two sides of the Atlantic. The British have flair and are better able to finesse. We’re crude and uncreative by contrast. Simon Carr gives us the British version in his prickly account of how things might go if former Labour Party Prime Minister Tony Blair were to pass into the afterlife and be asked to account for himself and his legacy.

Blair chronicles his achievements and (few) failures in a dialogue with this keeper at the gate, a being named Sir John. Far from contrite, a bit defensive but mostly immodest, Blair credits himself and his party with serving his country well, “everything we did was to help people.” It’s difficult to be meek, Blair says, when someone such as himself is possessed with high esteem. It’s hard to argue with that logic. Blair goes on to say that making the world a better place was his purpose, “That was the whole focus of what I gave my life to – in the service of the world.” To that Sir John replies, “Just checking.”

More than just account for himself, Blair can’t help but meddle with the heavenly status quo and suggest a grand reorganization, an effort the he would be eager to lead. There’s “so much to do up here,” he intones, and Sir John agrees. Suffice it to say that a key part of Blair’s planned reorg is to beef up strategic communications. “You had the Bible. We need modern methods,” he tells Sir John.

You get the gist of things; the dialogue is meant to be clever repartee between heavenly host and former earthly ruler seeking affirmation as well as admission – and it works. For the most part, "The Last Judgement of Tony Blair" is as witty as it is wise, costs less than a buck and is a fast read on a slow Saturday afternoon.

In a word: Acerbic

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