Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Last Refuge by Chris Knopf

Protagonist: Sam Acquillo
Setting: Southampton, N.Y.
Rating: 4.4
The last refuge refers to Sam Acquillo’s nine-tenths of an acre next to the Little Peconic Bay, where he’s retreated after suddenly (and violently) quitting his engineering job, and following his divorce. There he lives peacefully with his dog Eddie (named after Eddie van Halen), until his elderly next-door neighbor is found dead in a bathtub filled with water. No one seems to find it suspicious, except for Acquillo, who knew she didn’t like to take baths – only showers. He gets himself named as administrator of her estate, only to uncover shady real estate deals and possibly other past murders. Acquillo writes about the real Hamptons – not the glittery, celeb-filled one, but the one in which the have-nots struggle to make a living. This is an author I will continue reading (this is the first in a four-book series). Not only can Knopf write a great mystery, but he had great, oddball characters; sharp, witty dialogue; and a portrayal of the Hamptons as it really is.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Frank McCourt dies

A few years ago, shortly after Angela's Ashes was published, I went to a standing-room only event to hear Frank McCourt read from his book. I hadn't read the book yet and came away feeling he was a lovely man -- down-to-earth, warm and funny. Then I read the book, and it was one of the most moving stories I've read -- all the more powerful for being real. I'm saddened by his death, yet also heartened that late in life he was able to share a story, one that was embraced by so many people. While it revolved around an Irish family, the themes that ran through this story were universal. In fact, if I were asked to name 10 modern classics, Angela's Ashes would be at the top.

Murder in the Rue de Paradis by Cara Black

Protagonist: Aimee Leduc
Setting: Paris
Rating: 3.7

A reviewer once compared the Leduc series to Kinsey Millhone, and it's not too far off. While Aimee is much, much more fashionable (this being Paris, after all) and she has a sidekick to get her out of trouble, fans of Kinsey will probably also enjoy this series, which gets better with each book. In Murder in the Rue de Paradis, the eighth in the series, Aimee's on-and-off-again lover, Yves, returns to Paris and asks Aimee to marry him. She says yes, but after one night together, Yves is murdered. Although police are investigating, they're also hiding something from Aimee. As Aimee investigates, this becomes a story about Kurdish and Turkish politics, and a sleeper jihadist sleeper cell that is scheming an assassination. Black manages to pull all this off, along with a surprise twist at the end.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

The Final Solution by Michael Chabon

Protagonist: Sherlock Holmes
Setting: English countryside
Rating: 3.3

If you are expecting another neat Sherlock Holmes story, you may be very disappointed in this tale, which has very little detecting in it. We meet the great detective (always unnamed, just “the old man,” but undeniably Holmes) at the end of his life. Living alone in the English countryside and tending to his beehives, Holmes is lured out of his retirement after he meets a young boy, a survivor of the Nazi camps, and his parrot, who seems to have learned (and retained) some German codes. Soon, the parrot is missing and someone from the household in which they boy lives is dead. Holmes is more concerned with the parrot than the murder, promising the boy he’ll find his pet bird. But the story meanders, with Holmes just about stumbling on the one clue that leads him to the bird thief. He's not so much a great detective in this story, as another old man suffering from dizzy spells and heart problems. As wonderful as Chabon’s writing is -– and his prose is beautiful -– I hated to see the great detective portrayed this way, and the plot was just flat. My recommendation: read an original Arthur Conan Doyle story.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

American Wife, The Senator's Wife

Two recent books have made me glad to not be married to a man in politics:

American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld (audiobook)
Protagonist: Alice Lindgren
Setting: Wisconsin
Rating: 2.5

This was an audiobook I plodded through for a book club meeting, but I found myself gnashing my teeth through most of it. Loosely based on First Lady Laura Bush’s life, it tries to give us a glimpse into the feelings and motivations of a fictional first lady. Yet, it’s hard as a reader to get the image of Laura Bush (or George Bush, for that matter) out of one’s mind. I was too distracted by the attempt to fictionalize the life of a real-life person to enjoy the story. There were also too many parts that just dragged for me, and the ending disintegrated into a piece about the Iraq war. Even for those of us who aren’t right-wingers, this book was a big miss.

The Senator’s Wife by Sue Miller (audiobook)
Protagonists: Delia Naughton and Meri Fowler
Setting: New England
Rating: 4.0
Here, in the hands of a master storyteller, is a more compelling story, or set of stories – that of Delia, an older woman, and the younger Meri, her neighbor. The book alternates between their stories, and we see how each struggles with marriage and independence. But the book’s focus really is on Delia Naughton, the more interesting of the characters. Married to Sen. Tom Naughton, she has been separated from him for years – Tom is unable to be faithful to his wife (and that reminds us of another real-life president). While she remains married to Tom, Delia lives in their family home and he lives in Washington. She and Tom have their occasional fling, but keep these secret from even their own children. When Tom has a stroke and is unable to care for himself, Delia brings him back to the family home to care for him. Finally, Delia has him to herself. But here the characters’ stories intersect for a powerful climax. Weeks after listening to this book, I'm still thinking of the characters -- always a sign of a good book.