Some of the books from this summer and fall that I can recommend…or not:
“Blind Man’s Alley” by Justin Peacock - You wouldn’t think a thriller about a New York City developer and the lawyers who represent him would be a page turner, but “Blind Man’s Alley” is, in fact, just that. The characters’ dialogue rings true; the lawyers, real estate robber barons, and the journalists are well cast; New York City is as much of a player in the plot as any human. There’s even some biracial angst and the realistic amount of sex possible for a lawyer who works 80 hours a week. It won’t be long before this one is a movie, I’ll wager.
“Edgar Sawtelle” by David Wroblewski - This gratifyingly fat volume is what you always hope to find when you buy a new, writerly, recommended-by-bookstore-staff, nouvelle-cuisine kind of book. Only this one isn’t contrived or over-written and it’s about a boy and dogs without turning into Old Yeller 2.0.
“Up from Orchard Street” by Eleanor Widmer – This is the first novel written in 100 or so years about Jews on the Lower East Side that has an original story line. It’s historically accurate and the characters are much more interesting than anyone you’re going to meet this week, so read it instead of perusing Match.com or going to Happy Hour.
“The King’s Favorite,” by Susan Holloway Scott and “The Other Queen” by Philippa Gregory – I got my annual Royal fix with these two novels. Gregory is the better-known author, and she carries on her strong research and convincing narrative style of 16th-century English intrigue here. Its rotating first-person accounts by Mary, Queen of Scots; the Earl of Shrewsbury (George Talbot) and his wife, Bess of Hardwick, are good stuff, although Bloody Mary’s egotistical rants get tiresome. (Think how poor Bess felt…she had to host the annoying Mary for more than two years while the reigning Queen Elizabeth I tried to figure out what to do with her plotting cousin.) Scott’s novel is just as well researched, and ultimately a more enjoyable tale with its lone narrator, the bawdy Nell Gwyn. This illiterate, street-smart actress and mistress of King Charles II started out as a tavern wench in the 1660s and never lost sight of those humble beginnings. By all accounts she was an honest, uncomplicated friend to Charles, a rarity in court life. (Then and now, probably.)
“The 37th Hour” by Jodi Compton – After I read “Hailey’s War,” I hunted up this novel by the same author. Also very good. Compton has a gift for strong, flawed, believable, contemporary female characters. This one stars a police detective with a gift for finding missing people. She’s put to the test when her husband, also a cop, disappears. It’s a thriller on the surface and underneath…a meditation on the many ways people get lost. Sometimes without going anywhere at all.
“Running Commentary: The Contentious Magazine that Transformed the Jewish Left into the Neoconservative Right,” by Benjamin Balint – I bought this planning to get a sense of period details relevant to 1940s-50′s Jewish intelligentsia, and ended up reading it with care. This is a sleeper; well researched, well written. It’s a close look behind the scenes at a magazine that brought America good stuff by Roth, Malamud, Singer, Arendt, Mailer, and the staff’s gradual move to the Right. This arc of change is a fascinating process and (former Seattleite) Balint does a masterful job explaining how it went down. The cast of characters is worthy of a novel or two. Balint’s four-year stint as an editor at Commentary came in handy.
“Hailey’s War” by Jodi Compton - Very good novel that is much smarter, less predictable, fresher than whatever thriller you last read. Hailey has much of the panache of the blockbuster heroine Lisbeth Salander who will apparently be on the bestseller list for years. She’s a West Point washout, bike messenger and wow, she can kick some butt and think meaningful thoughts at the same time. Loved it.
“Wherever You Go” by Joan Leegant - New novel about three people pursuing their vision of Judaism and Israel today. I disagree with the NYT review on this one. I found the characters and their struggles to be realistic and the push-pull of life as a Jew today to be captured with clarity and feeling. Buy it.
“South of Broad” by Pat Conroy - Someone has hijacked this formerly wonderful writer. A whacked plot and a hero I wanted to slap. Reread any of his other books instead.
“In My Father’s House” by Lynn Harris (of blessed memory) — Slightly convincing gay soft porn and a lot of fashion detail exhibited by characters of color. Flaccid plot. You decide.
“Poor Little Bitch Girl” by Jackie Collins - Yes, I am ashamed. But I got it at the library. I did not spend money on it. You probably wouldn’t buy it anyway, right? Don’t.
“Born on a Blue Day: Inside the extraordinary mind of an autistic savant” by Daniel Tammet - Wonderful, fascinating, occasionally gently funny first-person account. It is impossible to look at other marching-to-different-drummer type humans quite the same way after reading this one. It helps that he’s a Brit on top of it all.
“Marriage and Other Acts of Charity” by Kate Braestrup – Not as good as her previous book, but continues the appealing story of the widowed chaplain who ministers to law enforcement and civilians in the Maine woods. If all clergy were this practical and funny, the world would be a better place.
“The Devlin Diary” by Christi Phillips – Story moves between Oxford of today and 17th century England. An escapist novel with very good historical grounding and a female protagonist with brains and bravery. The duties and drawbacks of a female doctor in the royal court are considerably more interesting than those of the contemporary scholar of history at stuffy Oxford.
“Dragons” by Michael Connelly – The Detective Harry Bosch series is now DOA. Or should be. This one reads like a movie treatment.
“Split Image: A Jesse Stone Novel” by Robert B. Parker – Trademark terse sentences. Snappy one-liners. Alcoholism. Washed-up cop. Hot private detective. If this mystery book was food, it would be those little oyster crackers that float. Only unsalted. And past their expiration date.
“The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story if America’s Great Migration” by Isabel Wilkerson. See my review for Seattle Times, here.
I’ll spare you the list of books related to lynching and racism that are part of my ongoing writing project. At least for now. Except to say that Professor Paula J. Giddings created a suitable monument for the heroic Ida B. Wells with “Ida: A Sword Among Lions.” Until this book, Wells did not get the credit she deserved for helping to end widespread lynching in the American South.