Monday, June 30, 2014

The Monuments Men, by Robert M. Edsel

Robert M. Edsel. The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History. New York: Bay Back Books/Little, Brown, and Company, 2009. 473 pages. ISBN 9780316240055.

I first became aware of this book when I saw the commercials for the film. Looking for good books to read for our book club, my fellow club members and I were considering a list of books that had recent movie tie-ins, and this book grabbed our attention. World War II has always been interesting to me, partly because my father was involved in it as a radio operator in a bombing squadron that flew out of England in 1944. After completing 34 missions over Europe my father was brought back to the U.S. for training and possible deployment in the Pacific theater when the war ended and he was spared.

Edsel evokes the war through his clear and engaging prose. Although it's chock full of facts and figures, The Monuments Men reads like a novel. At first I had a hard time keeping all the main characters straight, but eventually their characters and history become developed and I found myself rooting for them to succeed. I really enjoyed this book, and I'm looking forward to seeing the movie; it's coming up soon in my Netflix list...

Sunday, June 29, 2014

The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair, by Joel Dicker

Joel Dicker. The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair. New York: Penguin Books, 2014. 643 pages. ISBN 9780143126683.

Marcus Goldman is an author suffering from writer's block as he tries to come up with an idea for his second novel. Following the wild success of his first novel, he's feeling the pressure of achieving similar success with his second. Marcus contacts his favorite college professor and mentor, Harry Quebert, who offers to let him stay in his New Hampshire home as a form of retreat. While there, Marcus learns that Harry had a long ago affair with a teenage girl, Nola, who later that summer went missing and was never heard from again. When her remains are found later, Harry becomes the number one suspect and Marcus sets out to prove Harry innocent. As Marcus follows the clues and interviews all the townspeople who knew Nola, he unearths one secret after another. Past intrigues, deceits, and crimes come to light, but the mystery remains as to who killed Nola.

The twists and turns in The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair had my head spinning. But the writing is excellent and the pace keeps the reader going. I found this book readable and fun, and the fast-paced plot will keep you turning the pages until the end. Very satisfying.

I received this book at an event sponsored by the Association of American Publishers and Library Journal, and the author gave a short, but amusing, presentation about his experiences as a writer. Joel Dicker is Suiss, writing in French. He wrote five or six novels (unpublished) before writing this book. It's good that he didn't give up!

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Gods of Aberdeen, by Micah Nathan

Micah Nathan. Gods of Aberdeen. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005. 369 pages. ISBN 0743250826.

In Gods of Aberdeen, author Micah Nathan paints an evocative picture of life in a small New England liberal arts college. Young student Eric Dunne has been accepted into Aberdeen College as a 16-year old. He comes from a modest background and has to rely on financial aid to get by, including a work study position in the library. He also takes on a part time job helping a professor do research for a long-anticipated history book. Through his part-time work Eric becomes friends with his co-workers who are working on a secretive side project. As Eric learns more about their research efforts, he becomes increasingly afraid of what they're capable of. He goes along with them until he is put in the position of covering up for an accidental death of one of his fellow students, and he's forced to make a decision between recovering his integrity or protecting someone who he has learned can't be trusted.

I really enjoyed reading this book set on a college campus, although I found the library scenes to be ridiculously clichéd. The ancient librarian who heads the library sits at a desk near the circulation desk; he routinely allows rare books and manuscripts to be checked out; etc. I found it hard to read as impressionable Eric is manipulated into doing things that he knows is wrong, but kept reminding myself that he's only 16, and 16-year-olds do stupid things. Overall, the books drew me in and I had to keep reading to see what Eric would end up doing. I would recommend this to anyone who likes mysteries and suspense.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Those Who Wish Me Dead, by Michael Koryta

Michael Koryta. Those Who Wish Me Dead. New York: Little, Brown, and Company, 2014. 390 pages. ISBN 9780316122559.

In Michael Koryta's tenth book, two killers are tracking a young boy who witnessed them committing a murder. Jace has been put into a wilderness survival camp for the summer in an effort to hide him from the murderers who are after him. His name changed to Connor, he's trying to pass himself off as a juvenile with a troubled past. The survival camp is run by Ethan and Allison Serbin. In an effort to protect Connor, Ethan takes the boys into the mountains for days at a time, teaching them how to light a campfire, find drinkable water, and escape from wildfires. Somehow the killers track Connor down, and while interrogating neighbors to find out Ethan and Connor's location, set a fire that begins to spread through the mountains. When Connor realizes that the killers are nearby, he strikes out on his own, using the knowledge and skills he learned from Ethan. A forest ranger, Hannah Faber tries to help him escape from them.

The action and suspense are relentless in this book; I found it impossible to put down. There are completely unexpected twists and turns in the plot that kept me guessing until the end. Once again, Koryta refuses to give a pat happy ending to his book, providing instead a bittersweet ending that left me a little sad. I recommend this to anyone who enjoys thrillers or mysteries.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

The Prophet, by Michael Koryta

Michael Koryta. The Prophet. New York: Little, Brown, and Company, 2012. 405 pages. ISBN 9780316122610.

Brothers Adam and Kent lost their sister to a violent attack when they were young; her murderer died in prison years later. Kent has tried to move on, forgiving the murderer and clinging to religion and his work as a high school football coach as his support. Adam hasn't been able to move past the tragedy and continues to live in the house in which they grew up, maintaining his sister's room as a shrine to her memory. The brothers aren't close even though they live in the same small town, partly because Adam blames himself for not being there to help his sister when she needed him. Many years later, another young girl goes missing, and the memory of the earlier tragedy brings the brothers together again. Adam is driven to find the murderer and bring him to justice, and Kent needs his brother's help since the murderer has targeted Kent and his family.

The Prophet is a thriller that keeps the pages turning. Author Michael Koryta's ninth book is compulsively readable. The characters are a little clichéd, and the action is a little over the top, but the emotions are entirely believable. I recommend this to anyone who enjoys mysteries and thrillers.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Andrew's Brain, by E.L. Doctorow

E.L. Doctorow. Andrew's Brain. New York: Random House, 2014. 200 pages. ISBN 9781400068814.

In Doctorow's latest, Andrew is engaged in a conversation with someone he calls "Doc." It's easy to assume that Doc is a psychiatrist or psychoanalyst, as he seems to be trying to draw Andrew out on his history and relationships. Andrew tells Doc about all the misfortunes of his life, including the accidental death of his first child, and the death of his second wife. To atone for the first child's death, he gives the baby from his second marriage to his first wife, who promptly disappears with the child and never gives him back.

It's hard to tell whether Andrew is telling the truth about himself or not. Sometimes the stories he tells are plausible, and other times I found his tales too tall to believe. It's clear that he doesn't have a firm grip on reality. Andrew tells of living an isolated existence, in which he's determined not to hurt anyone else. He devolves from a college professor to a high school science teacher, and it's while teaching that he's found by none other than George Bush, who's doing a photo op at the school. It turns out that Andrew was Bush's college roommate, and Bush offers him a job as an advisor in the White House. While there, his outlandish behavior results in his arrest by Homeland Secutiry as a threat to the United States. Presumably, he's been in a prison for years, where his interrogation by Doc is taking place.

I found this book to be very odd, but readable. I had no idea what was going on, what I was supposed to think about Andrew's stories, or what Doctorow is trying to say with this book. If it were much longer than 200 pages, I may not have made the effort, but it's short enough that it didn't get tedious. And yet I still don't know what to make of this book. Other reviews have been mixed, with many reviewers expressing disappointment with this book.

Friday, June 20, 2014

The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery

Muriel Barbery. The Elegance of the Hedgehog. New York: Europa Editions, 2008. 325 pages. ISBN 9780933372600.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog tells the story of middle-aged Renee and pre-teen Paloma. Renee is the concierge in an expensive condominium in Paris, and Paloma is the younger daughter of a couple who live in the building. Both are hiding their true thoughts and selves from others. Renee is a closet intellectual, reading history, literature, and philosophy in her spare time. Paloma hides her intelligence and is secretly planning her own death at the age of thirteen. Both Renee and Paloma regard almost everyone else with disdain, and are unhappy in their respective loneliness.

Everything changes when a new tenant arrives. Kakuro Ozu sees through both of their facades, and through his kindness they begin to see things differently. Mr. Ozu plays matchmaker between Renee and Paloma, and becomes a fixture in their lives as well.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog is filled with amusing characters, including the other tenants and their pets. I found the constant criticism of the tenants to be a little overdone; do they really have no redeeming characteristics whatsoever? I also found some passages a bit tedious, e.g., when Renee was thinking about or discussing philosophy, but I was able to skim through those sections and focus on the rest of the book. In spite of these minor criticisms, I found the book to be engaging and fun. I read it for my book club, and it gave us a lot to talk about. It comes after another book, Gourmet Rhapsody, which follows another character who lives in the same apartment building.

Monday, June 16, 2014

BEA 2014

BookExpo America (BEA) took place May 28-31, 2014, and included hundreds of authors, dozens of events, and thousands of new book titles that were being promoted by the authors and publishers. I've been attending BEA for 14 years; librarians are welcome at BEA, although they are far outnumbered by booksellers. Although my role in collection development has always been minimal, I use my attendance to learn about new books and to collect copies that I can review here and on Amazon. I attended special events and educational programs, and explored the exhibits throughout the four-day event.

Wednesday, May 28. I took the MegaBus from Albany to New York, securing round trip fare for $6, the best price I've ever gotten on the MegaBus. I got to New York too early to check into my hotel (The New Yorker), so I just dropped my luggage off at the hotel's luggage room and went directly to the conference center. The first day of the conference is primarily made up of educational programming and special events. I attended several programs throughout the day: Publishing, Digital Technology & Women: The View from the Cutting Edge; The Future of Bricks and Mortar Retailers (the keynote); Helping Bookstores, Saving Lives: James Patterson's 1M Indie Store Campaign; and the BEA Editor's Buzz Adult Books. I had to leave the last presentation early as I was meeting a former colleague (and my BEA roommate), Linda, for a special event at the Yale Club. Hosted by the Association of American Publishers (AAP), this dinner included presentations by authors with soon-to-be-published books. It was hosted by Maureen Corrigan, with authors Robyn Carr, Joel Dicker, Pat O'Brien, and Sue Miller each speaking about their new books. 

Thursday, May 29. The morning started with a breakfast hosted by Random House at their company headquarters on W. 57th St. Similar in format to the previous night's dinner, speakers included David Mitchell, Amy Bloom, and several additional authors. Random House was kind enough to give us copies of all of their books as well.  Back at the convention center I began to walk the exhibits finding that either the early crowd had picked up all of the galleys on display. It may have been timing, but I found throughout this BEA that the bigger publishers didn't seem to be giving away as many galleys as they used to. Perhaps they're relying more on netgalleys and they don't feel the need to give as many print galleys away. I met up with my friend again for lunch, another special event sponsored by the AAP. The lunch consisted of a box lunch with soda, and the speakers were Deborah Harkness, Cary Elwes, Matt Richtel, Kathy Reichs, and Garth Stein. Once again, we were given a bag full of galleys. I only attended one educational program on Thursday: the AAP Librarian Book Buzz I. Exhausted after such a full day and a lot of walking, Linda and I had dinner at a Thai restaurant around the corner from our hotel.

Friday, May 30. With no special events planned, I began day 2 of the exhibits by trying to walk the whole floor. I really appreciated Library Journal's booth, which is set up as a lounge for attending librarians. They supply water, iced tea, and coffee throughout the day, along with a variety of snacks. It's really nice to have a place on the exhibit floor to sit down! And it was conveniently located near the shipping area which made it easy to drop off a bag of books and take a little break. I attended two educational programs on Friday: Walter Isaacson Speaks with Jacob Weisberg about his new book The Innovators: How a Group of Inventors, Hackers, Geniuses and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution; and AAP Librarian Book Buzz 2. I mailed one box home and realized that I was going to have too many books left over for my suitcase so I resigned myself to mailing another box home on Saturday. Meeting up with Linda after the show, we relaxed for a short while and then met another friend for an early dinner at a Middle Eastern restaurant near Madison Square Garden.

Saturday, May 31. The last day of BEA was called Book Con. Included in the registration fee for all attendees, it was also opened up to non-book-industry people (i.e., readers) for a fee. Linda had to catch an early train, so she didn't attend the final day. I arrived at the convention center just as the exhibits were opening, and it was a madhouse. Once I finally made it into the exhibits, I realized that for the final day, the exhibit floor was divided in half. Book Con people were allowed into half of the space; the other half was reserved for folks who'd registered as book professionals for the whole event. The Book Con side was so jam-packed that I couldn't even walk through it. The lines for books and authors were enormous. The trade side was fairly slow, with almost no traffic and few books being promoted. Some of the big publishers were on one side and some on the other. It wasn't even remotely possible to get near the autographing lines. After braving the crowds for a while I gave up and decided to just attend educational programs for the day, but when I went to the hall where they were held, I found that most of them had lines of hundreds of Book Con folks waiting to get in. It was just impossible, and I have to admit that I was extremely disappointed with Book Con. We'll see what they do next year, but I hope they come up with something better than this! I caught my bus back a little after 3:00 and was home in a couple of hours.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis

Ayana Mathis. The Twelve Tribes of Hattie. New York: Vintage Books, a division of Random House, 2013. 303 pages. ISBN 9780307949707.

Hattie was a young girl when she moved to Philadelphia with her mother and sisters. Marrying young, she ultimately had eleven children. Her adult life and relationships with her children were colored by the deaths of her first two children, twins who died of influenza or pneumonia.  Hattie never recovered from their deaths, which turned her into a severe and critical woman who wasn't able to experience joy or express the love she felt for her other children. The Twelve Tribes of Hattie recounts the stories of each of her remaining children, many of whom suffered from mental illness and depression.

Author Ayana Mathis explores the effects of tragedy, mental illness, depression, and poverty on a family struggling to get by in this book set from the 1920s through 1980. Ultimately, Hattie understands how she has failed her family, and resolves not to do so again when Hattie's daughter Cassie succumbs to mental illness and leaves her daughter Sala in Hattie's care.  It's well-written and compulsively readable, although I found the unending progression of sad and tragic stories hard to bear. Nevertheless, it provides much food for thought and discussion. This would be a good choice for book clubs and anyone else who enjoys contemporary fiction.