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Book Reviews
General and Literary Fiction

"Fiction reviewed with a discerning eye."

Dave Barry, Big Trouble

Dave Barry, writing his first novel, had no right to come up with something this good. I'm not saying it's literature; it is simply one of the most entertaining books I've listened to in a long time. It's easy to follow and knock-down funny, especially in the beginning.

I picked this up from the library to listen to on a long road trip. My attention was held the entire time. Something like this is perfect for those trips, because while you're laughing, you're not thinking, "I've still got six hundred miles to go." Barry's characters are some of the most offbeat I've met since Carl Hiaasen (whose territory he admits invading, and who also worked at the Miami Herald) and Elmore Leonard.

Original it's not, fun it is.

Dick Hill's reading is part of the fun. While his women all sound like Dave Foley (Kids in the Hall) and some of his characterizations are over-the-top, I still enjoyed his work. He often would surprise me with his choice of voices and I was always able to tell one character from another.

The ending tests credibility quite a bit--and the humor flags while trying to wrap things up--but it's all in fun and I was able to suspend disbelief in order to make it to a very satisfying epilogue.

For a nice break between bouts of Russo, Updike, and Chabon, pick this up and give your brain a rest.

Judy Blume, Wifey

Children's author Judy Blume (Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing among others) steps into Erica Jong (Fear of Flying) territory with Wifey, a highly sexual portrait of an unhappy housewife. Sandy is married to Norman (a hilariously drawn character of a lout), who satisfies none of the Sandy's needs. Her memories lead her back to an old boyfriend named Shep, as well as a couple of friends and neighbors, not to mention the strange naked man on the motorcycle pleasing himself outside her front window.

While Wifey was a quick read, I didn't really bring anything from it. Perhaps it is merely dated. Set in 1970, there is none of the modern feeling of deserving to be happy whatever the cost. Sandy is an old-fashioned wife who feels it would be wrong to leave her husband. Plus, her Jewish mother brings a lot of guilt along for the ride. There just wasn't much reality to the whole show.

But maybe that was the point and Wifey is simply an escapist novel. I certainly read it for that purpose, so I suppose in that way it is a success. But the ending was so annoying that it all but ruined the entire experience.

Gene Brewer, K-PAX

This is a novel in the vein of an Oliver Sacks book, and it has a similar ending: happy, for some. The story involves a mental patient who calls himself "prot" (no capitals) and claims to have come to Earth from the planet K-PAX. Dr. Gene Brewer spends the duration of the book trying, through intensive questioning sessions, to find out who prot really is. Why is "prot" here? Is he psychotic, is he multiple personality?

Meanwhile, prot is bringing his brand of sunshine to the hospital. Normally aloof patients are now enrapt, listening to every word out of prot's mouth. And they all finally have hope, but for the wrong reason: they think prot is going to take one of them back to K-PAX with him. And K-PAX is certainly described by prot as an idyllic setting. No crime, no hunger, they don't eat meat; none of the things that make Earth hard to live on.

To say much more would be too much, so I'll just say that this is a gripping read. Brewer's narrative style is easy and quick, and I was always wanting to get back to the story (it also works as a mystery, but it is definitely NOT--despite the cover--science-fiction, although psychology students may find other aspects of interest). In addition, since the narrator has the name of the author, it lends the air of reality, as if this were a true case study.

I'm not sure if I would want to read the purported sequels (On a Beam of Light and K-PAX III: the worlds of prot)--that's stretching an idea too far--but this book is wonderful as a stand-alone story, and a good one.

Colin Bruce, Conned Again, Watson!: Cautionary Tales of Logic, Math, and Probability

This is good enough at what it does: illustrating mathematical concepts under the guise of Sherlock Holmes stories. However, I have one beef and that is that Bruce, perhaps through lack of information on his own part, makes Holmes less intelligent than he should be.

My main example is that throughout the book, Holmes and Watson make reference to the year 1900 (their present year) as being the beginning of a new century. I feel certain that Holmes at least would know that centuries do not begin until the year one, in this case 1901. When Watson mentioned it, I felt sure that Bruce was taking the normal tack of making him obviously less intelligent than his partner (the man is a doctor, for crying out loud, give him some credit), but when Holmes mentions it later, I was duly perturbed.

Bruce also uses characters purely to tack on surprise endings to his stories, one of which did not work for this reviewer. In one story, the pair meet the Reverend Charles Dodgson, which any bibliophile knows is the real name of Lewis Carroll, but does not present this information until the last paragraph of the story. The surprise ending, using the pseudonym, was therefore lost on me.

In another story, there is no solution presented to a murder. This irked me no end at first, but then I realized that there being no solution to the mystery better illustrated the mathematical principle being explained. I still prefer my murders to have solutions, however.

All in all, this is an entertaining book. Bruce's skills as a storyteller and his ability to mix lessons into his stories is commendable. The stories, as Holmes pastiches, ring true overall, only clunking during the details I have mentioned, such as certain actions that seem totally out of character. One other example is when Sherlock and Mycroft are explaining a principle and Sherlock pulls out a graph to illustrate. Bruce (as Watson) writes the following (to the best of my memory): "I jumped up, knocking over my chair, and cried, 'I have a horror of algebra!'" I couldn't help but laugh! This behavior from one of the most beloved characters in literature?

But, as I said, as a whole the book succeeds, and if you can overlook these details and engross yourself in the superb storytelling, you will enjoy yourself, and probably be educated in the process.

Patricia Cornwell, Isle of Dogs

What a terrific example of false advertising! The blurb on the back says this is a continuation of the Judy Hammer series, but has nothing to do with it other than sharing two characters.

I wonder what Putnam thought when they saw this one cross their desks. They could have at least warned the readers that this was a 'departure.' I, for one, was not expecting a departure on my sixteen-hour road trip, trapped as I was in my car with this garbage. Talking crabs? A typing dog? Characters named after personality traits? Come on, now, Patricia, write what you want, but don't try to pass it off as a series book. At least let people know that this is not what we are expecting.

I give this an extra star for the appearance of Kay Scarpetta (in which it seems Cornwell switched gears and wrote in her old style) and for Trooper Truth's interesting history lessons (the best parts of the book, though heavy-handed).

All in all, I'd say go into this one with an open mind, or just skip it. You're not missing anything.

Libra by Don DeLillo Don DeLillo, Libra

Libra is a fictional "biography" of Lee Harvey Oswald following his life and the plans that were underway during the seven months before the Kennedy assassination to make him the scapegoat. DeLillo, of course, takes liberties with the facts but he has produced a real page-turner and made Oswald into an entirely sympathetic character who may not have had the purest of motives but was not the one who fired the fatal shot.

Interestingly, DeLillo attributes an inordinate amount of luck to the fact that the motorcade appeared when and where it did. Several coincidences occurred to make the assassination possible, totally out of the control of those planning it. And yet it still worked.

The most fun part of reading it was noticing the ideas presented in the film JFK (filmed three years after Libra was published) appear in this book, making it a familiar territory. David Ferrie, in particular, is a major character and Guy Bannister appears often, also, as does Jack Ruby. De Lillo has obviously done his research.

Having just seen JFK again, I picked this up as sort of a "companion" novel and it worked well in that capacity. I felt that the movie did not really touch on so much of Oswald's life and that Libra filled in those gaps well.

DeLillo's sense of time and place are commendable and I think this was probably a good training ground for his epic Underworld, which has sat on my bookshelf, collecting dust for many years and which I will most likely now pick up and read.

Helen Fielding, Bridget Jones's Diary

There has been a lot of hype surrounding this novel. I actually avoided it for a long time because I don't like to get caught up in that sort of thing. But I was pleasantly surprised, and yet also disappointed.

This book is pure fluff. Now that has its place, and the mood I was in was that place. It's funny and it's a pleasant diversion. But that's all it is. It's not groundbreaking and I didn't recognize myself in it--but then I'm not a single English woman (in fact I'm none of those).

Its one fault was that it was too long. Like I said, it was pleasant and witty enough, but I didn't care about the characters so once it began to rely on the story, I got bored and just wanted it to end.

Nancy Goldstone, Bad Business

I picked this up because I liked the books the author had written with her husband on their exploits in the book collecting world (see my Used and Rare page). Their previous novels were, of course, listed at the front of each book.

This is a comic novel of the advertising industry. Main character Julie Wilson's boss was just demoted and she inherited all his accounts. Her being a junior associate has done nothing for her standing in the company, the rest of the associates (practically) being all seniors that seem to think they know everything about the industry.

In order to cement her reputation, she comes up with an idea: since the public knows nothing about the U.S.'s economic practices up to and including the name of the Secretary of the Treasury, she decides to propose a plan to the Treasury Department. They should advertise. A little Public Relations would go a long way for the government. So she sets up a meeting with the Secretary, and, of course, is shunted down to meeting his assistant (after she had told everyone that it was assured). And her life begins to change from that point on.

This is a funny book, although not laugh-out-loud funny. It feels like one of those stage farces in that strange things happen only in order to keep the story moving. It is amusing, however, and well-written. Goldstone knows how to craft a sentence, and how to juggle multiple plotlines within a chapter. The book is an enjoyable journey, but doesn't leave you with much. I would recommend it only for light reading.

Blues by John Hersey John Hersey, Blues

Although technically a novel, as it portrays a conversation that did not really happen, John Hersey's Blues feels more like non-fiction because it is one of the most educational books I have read in recent years. I came away from it with a new appreciation for the fisherman--and the fish.

Composed almost entirely of a conversation between two characters referred to only as Fisherman and Stranger, Blues is a portrait of a fisherman passing his knowledge and love of the catching and eating of the bluefish. Hersey's prose is easily conversational and full of information. Scattered throughout are poems from the likes of John Donne and Robert Penn Warren further illustrating the current topic.

Reading its bound-and-printed form, Blues is a bit stilted. I greatly preferred the Recorded Books reading by Norman Dietz, whose craggy voice perfectly suits the seasoned angler, and, when raising it an octave, portrays the excitement of the stranger during his learning experience.

I found myself wanting to go fishing--or just wanting to have fish for dinner--while reading about the different methods of how to cook fish in order to get out the ideal flavor--using varying degrees of simple items like butter and mayonnaise. I never thought I would like a book about fish--and I put off reading this for months--but John Hersey's Blues has once again proven that surprises lurk around every corner, if you're willing to keep an open mind and try new things. I may even seek out Izaak Walton's The Compleat Angler--the fishing classic--after reading this.

Elmore Leonard, Maximum Bob

A little plot-heavy, but laced with terrific characters, this Leonard novel departs a bit by being less entertaining than his previous (or subsequent) works.

The story of Bob Isom Gibbs (who likes to be called "Big" and whom Time Magazine named "Maximum Bob" for his tendency to impose maximum penalties on culprits) and his run-ins with Kathy Baker (not the actress) and a huge alligator are simply not as interesting as the plotlines of, say, Get Shorty and Out of Sight. However, Leonard--as always--is a genius at creating memorable characters. I would definitely like to know more about these people--especially Leanne, the new-agey wife of Gibbs who is also possessed by 12-year-old slave girl Wanda Grace.

If you are already a Leonard fan, you'll likely enjoy this offering as well. However, do not make this your first trip to Leonard territory, as it is definitely not his best. Best to start with Rum Punch, Out of Sight, or Get Shorty and move on from there

Practical Demonkeeping by Christopher Moore Christopher Moore, Practical Demonkeeping

I read an interview where Christopher Moore said that, with this novel, he wanted "to do for horror what Douglas Adams did for science-fiction." He hasn't come far off the mark, although the Hitchhiker series was palpably science-fiction whereas this is hardly horror. It has all of the trappings but never produces a real scare. That is my only complaint.

The other author I kept thinking of while reading this was Terry Pratchett, whose work I prefer over Adams'. In Adams' work, you could always see the joke coming, where Pratchett often sneaks up on you. Moore's humor is similarly situational. I especially like the description of the contents of Jenny's bathwater and its comparison to the contents of a lab experiment going on across town.

It's a light, quick read, but well worth it. This is my first Moore book, and I will definitely be searching out others.

V.S. Naipaul, The Mystic Masseur

I try to keep up with Nobel laureates because I am always looking for good reading, and, often, I have never heard of the authors before. I found this book in my local used bookstore. I was intrigued that it was his first novel, and I was especially intrigued by the back cover (1980 paperback edition). There was a quote that comes early in the book:

"Leela," Ganesh said, "the boy want to know how much book it have here."

"Let me see," Leela said... "Four hundred Everyman, two hundred Penguin--six hundred. Six hundred, and one hundred Reader's Library, make seven hundred. I think with all the other book it have about fifteen hundred good book here."
Up in the upper right corner was the symbol of Penguin Publishing. It struck me funny that they would be so bold as to use a quote from the book that so blatantly plugs their line as being "good books" that I had to buy it.

And it's actually quite good. It's not just well-written, it's funny, something I was not expecting. I'm glad I began my Naipaul reading with this one. I believe it seems to be the consensus to begin with A House for Mr Biswas, but, to me, that would be like starting John Irving with A Prayer for Owen Meany--there's really nowhere to go but down.

The story concerns Ganesh a man from Trinidad who fails as a teacher, then as a masseur (he seems to hurt more than he helps), but then finally finds his calling as a healing mystic, all along keeping his one vice--books. Throughout his life he writes books, starting with 101 Questions and Answers about Hinduism. Here is a sample:

Question one: What is Hinduism?
Answer: Hinduism is the religion of the Hindu people.
Question two: Why am I a Hindu?
Answer: Because your parents and grandparents were Hindus.
And so on. Ganesh's book career does not really take off until he reaches fame as a mystic. Then he writes his autobiography, which becomes a best-seller, relatively speaking.

It's hard to tell how Naipaul feels about his characters sometimes. He often seems to be making fun of them, yet also shows great affection for them. However he feels, I had a marvelous time visiting these people and will definitely pick up another Naipaul work in the future.

P.G. Wodehouse now has his own page.

  • I, Claudius and Claudius the God by Robert Graves -- The "autobiography" of the emperor Tiberius Claudius, his family, and his reign. Real page-turning stuff, and my absolute favorite novels.
  • ...more to come...