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The Story of Edgar Sawtelle
The Story of Edgar Sawtelle
by David Wroblewski
Edition: Hardcover

5 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Story About ......., 25 Jun 2008
"A story about a boy and his dog for grownups", that is how the author described this book.

I had the pleasure of hearing Mr. Wroblewski speak last night and found his thoughts very interesting and I believe worth sharing here. If I make an error in memory I apologize. He did not share the plot of his book and believes that novels should be experienced, as intended, by being read, not selectively exposed by others. He very politely declined to even share what type of dog he owns as he did not want readers to have any pre-conceived ideas about how the fictional breed of Sawtelle dogs in the book were imagined. He spoke of creating this story that is haunted by another story in 5 acts. And when he did read from the work he chose to read the chapter entitled "Almondine".

I have been posting my comments on books here for over 10 years. In all that time I cannot place another debut work by a writer above this remarkable work by Mr. Wroblewski. Another debut that comes to mind is Jeffrey Lent's first work "In The Fall", also a novel, and "All Over But The Shoutin" by Rick Bragg. The latter was non-fiction but his writing and story-telling skills were and remain extraordinary.

So the best I can do here is to recommend the book without qualification, to give nothing of the story away. You need only to love a wonderful story by a man who is passionate about what he writes who has given readers a book that I believe will be honored with literary awards in the near term and will be read as a classic American Novel a century from now.

The Billionaire's Vinegar: The Mystery of the World's Most Expensive Bottle of Wine
The Billionaire's Vinegar: The Mystery of the World's Most Expensive Bottle of Wine
by Benjamin Wallace
Edition: Hardcover

14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars When Money Isn't Enough, 13 May 2008
Mr. Wallace has produced a great read that is interesting from a historical prospective while it harpoons the very wealthy whose pursuit of money is no longer satisfying. Nope, these folks have to pursue a type of collectable that they cannot have any provenance for, which experts in the field can only hope to guess at what the bottle contains. Wine that is a century younger than the bottle on the book cover might at best be "recognizable as wine", unless of course it has become an ingredient for salad dressing.

The central charlatan in this tale is a master at exploiting the wishes of collectors and even the experts that should know better. Or perhaps that do know better and just let their own egos persuade them that in spite of zero evidence the product is real, and worse, valid sources that explain there is nothing to suggest the wine's legitimacy, never slow down. On with the auction!

The book is not just about human nature and its dimmer moments, there is a great deal of information on wine production, wine history and enough wine tasting descriptions for the most avid connoisseur. Or if you find the whole field a bit pretentious and tedious you might still be entertained by the likes of what follows "the art of drinking the very oldest rarities required an extra degree of connoisseurship-almost a kind of necrophilia".

I look forward to many more from the pen of Mr. Wallace. This is a very good offering that should find a wide audience whether you are an avid wine drinker or you feel the 18th Amendment was a great idea.

The Man Who Loved China: The Fantastic Story of the Eccentric Scientist Who Unlocked the Mysteries of the Middle Kingdom
The Man Who Loved China: The Fantastic Story of the Eccentric Scientist Who Unlocked the Mysteries of the Middle Kingdom
by Simon Winchester
Edition: Hardcover

29 of 30 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars 19 And Counting, 12 May 2008
There are 2 facets of Simon Winchester's work that make him one of my favorite authors. Firstly, he brings amazing players in History forward that I very often have never heard of. Secondly, he makes reading History tremendously fascinating. The latter should be a given, how can our past be anything but fascinating? The reality is that History books can be painful to read.

Noel Joseph Terrence Montgomery Needham is the subject of Mr. Winchester's 19th work, sound familiar? Not to me. However by the end of the book I look forward to seeking out more about this man as Mr. Winchester has a knack for catalyzing a reader's interest well beyond the book he offers. Professor Needham was a astonishing man who filled his 94 years with remarkable travels, eccentric behavior and a decision so poor the reader will ask was he a fool or a knave? (Question posed by the author)

What is not in dispute is the marvelous history of China Professor Needham documented through first hand investigation over thousands of miles traveled in China (many in war time) and the decades of research that followed. The only other historian that comes to mind as being so single minded in his pursuit of a subject is Sir Martin Gilbert and his decades long work on Sir Winston Spencer Churchill.

The work is also timely as it coincides with China's re-entry as a focal point for the world. China's existence is best measured in millennia and her scientific contributions when listed are nearly as long and often pre-date conventional wisdom on who was first with a given invention. Think you know where printing was first documented, suspension bridges first built, how about the compass, blood circulation or perhaps a flame-thrower?

China's recent history is no indicator of its fantastic past and may more likely be an indicator of what is yet to come. This is another great read by a wonderful author who never disappoints.

Islands of Silence
Islands of Silence
by Martin Booth
Edition: Hardcover

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Language, 22 April 2008
This review is from: Islands of Silence (Hardcover)
"Islands of Silence", by Martin Booth is one of the finest books I have read in quite some time. This work has been compared to some classics in the genre and while in most instances this type of comparison is empty hyperbole, this work is remarkable and the comparisons are legitimate.

The irony, of the eventual role men who refused to inflict violence against their fellow man would play, is that they would often face the same dangers and peril and do so unarmed. The young man who is at the center of this novel becomes a stretcher bearer in the trenches of World War I, a locale that ranks as one of the most miserable man-made atrocities of History and Literature.

Prior to the war our protagonist is a young archeologist working amongst the Islands of Scotland in search of the history they hold. During his work he meets a young woman who is at once the victim of ignorance and cruelty while she enjoys her life without the benefit and burden of knowing how she came to her existence. She represents an enigma that the author places at the center of Alec's life. As a result of his wartime experiences Alec chooses to remain mute, voluntarily adopting as a defense the same characteristic his island friend had thrust upon her.

Mr. Booth writes beautifully even when his prose takes on brutality that reminded me of Steinbeck. Like the author I mention he can take a placid afternoon moment, and in an instant shatter it and the persons unfortunate enough to be present. "Islands of Silence", is a wonderful work, enjoy.

The Pesthouse
The Pesthouse
by Jim Crace
Edition: Paperback
Price: 8.99

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Not A Gratuitous Shot, 22 April 2008
This review is from: The Pesthouse (Paperback)
What has always drawn me to the work of Mr. Crace is that whether the subject matter is new or very well trod upon this author supplies perspective that is unique. A given work of his does not predictably lead to his next, you can pick up anything he has published and continue through his work without feeling you have missed a step.

I think it is worth noting that this is not a clumsy opportunistic swipe at America at a time when our Nation is the target of criticism and ongoing examination both internal and external that no country would enjoy. I have read all of Mr. Crace's previous books and having just stated how unique his perspective has always been, such is unfortunately not the case with "The Pesthouse".

I may just be suffering from apocalyptic-themed reading burnout, but I really did not find this work engaging or as thought provoking as his previous work as been. This book is probably more notable for what the author leaves out, in terms of cause, circumstance, etc. What he does include is generally tweaked views of other novels showing the remains of society after Man has clearly made an irreparable mess.

If you have read this author's work before you need to read this as well, just don't have the same expectations that other works may have created for you. If you are new to his work this is a good place to start, for even though I don't believe this shows the author at anywhere near his best, he is still very good. And when you move on to the balance of his work it will be much more satisfying.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Mar 30, 2010 10:29 PM BST

A Peculiar Grace
A Peculiar Grace
by Jeffrey Lent
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 15.03

3 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars 14,062, 22 April 2008
This review is from: A Peculiar Grace (Hardcover)
I have greatly enjoyed Mr. Lent's work. His first novel, "In The Fall", can easily be placed along side many authors whose work would be classified as required reading, standards or classics in their chosen genres. "Lost Nation", too is a very fine work which like his first stands above his most recent offering.

His writing is as good in this book as in the previous publications; there can be in my opinion no serious debate as to the skills of this author. The primary reason I liked this work less is a personal quirk of mine that means I generally like contemporary works less than those that take place a bit further back in History. I did not find this book as engaging as his previous work, to me there was less scope to these characters and their lives than his previous books, the story also seemed to unfold with more expected events as opposed to truly reading the next page and chapters wondering where he was going to take you.

I wrote in much more detail about his previous 2 books so I will not repeat myself here.

I will say again that he is one of the finer writers producing works today and the number that titles this review is a measure of my frustration. The number represents where this book stands in sales as I write this, and I find it a sad commentary on how much, forgive me, garbage sells, while beautiful writing sits on shelves.

The Forgery of Venus
The Forgery of Venus
by Michael Gruber
Edition: Hardcover

4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Art Is Not The Subject, 22 April 2008
This review is from: The Forgery of Venus (Hardcover)
Michael Gruber is a fine writer. I have read all of his published work with the exception of "The Witch's Boy". The omission is not for a specific reason; I simply have not gotten to that work as of yet. Just as he did with "The Book Of Air And Shadows" he provides the reader with the background that is necessary for the enjoyment of this work. You did not need to be a scholar of Shakespeare to enjoy his last book and you need not be an art history major any more than you need a degree in psychiatry or medicine to enjoy his offering this time through.

This book is about reality and various characters perception of it. The views of events are made more complex because of the history of the main character and those around him who witnessed his bizarre and destructive behavior. Perception of experience in general and events in particular make for fascinating discussion with sober minds and witnesses with integrity. The author has given us a protagonist who is at once gifted and terribly self-destructive. His recreational drug use suggests he has the constitution of a lab rat. When sober he then becomes a voluntary test subject for mind-altering drugs in a clinical study.

Once this begins things get a bit too muddled. We don't need a Nazi playing the role of resident evil and the cast of characters ready to exploit the main character regardless of the damage to him is remarkable for these are not all strangers. Mr. Gruber gives us acquaintances of varying degree to demonstrate how horrible we can be to one another. I also felt the debates between characters in the book about what is real truly was about what is expedient. Self-interest trumps insight in this tale.

I really enjoy this author and I look forward to what he will bring next. Despite some bits I found annoying I like the central character in this work and would happily enjoy reading of him again. Mr. Gruber has written multiple books with the same characters in the past, I hope he does so once more.

Life Class
Life Class
by Pat Barker
Edition: Hardcover

4 of 7 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Not Her Usual High Standards, 22 April 2008
This review is from: Life Class (Hardcover)
I believe I have read all of Pat Barker's published works including the oft mentioned, "Regeneration Trilogy". I think it is unfair to make a comparison to that series of books, as many would rightfully argue it is her best work.

"Life Class" suffers from weak and in some cases characters that are too easily disliked. Well-drawn characters that a reader enjoys rooting against can be a great part of any work. In this case I found myself dreading the reappearance of certain players. This book like some of her others deals with desire and the mess that war can make of relationships. What this book fails to do is motivate the reader to care about the relationships and the people that comprise them. These people are mostly shallow, insufferably selfish, and nave to the point of being unbelievable.

Pat Barker is a wonderful writer and she has a list of work that any author would envy. By all means read her work including this offering. You would be well advised to start with her earlier work and then eventually arrive at "Life Class". No author is perfectly consistent however if you start here you may not find the interest to read more of her work and that would be a shame.

The Silver Swan
The Silver Swan
by Benjamin Black
Edition: Hardcover

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars I Cannot Separate The Two, 22 April 2008
This review is from: The Silver Swan (Hardcover)
I have read all the novels published by Mr. Banville and have now read both that he has written under the pseudonym of Benjamin Black. Try as I have I cannot read these books under his pen name without comparing them to the work that carries the name of Mr. Banville. Just for the record I believe Mr. Banville to be one of the finest writers of fiction producing books at present.

"The Silver Swan" is the second in a series of books that center on the primary character of Quirke. This subsequent effort is inferior to the first. The scope of the book is very narrow, coincidence takes the place of great plotting, and even Quirke seems to have trouble deciding who he is and the difference between right and wrong. Except perhaps for the idea they are very flexible and for personal use as opposed to moral absolutes.

These books are not poor but I don't believe they would have gained notice if the author had remained unknown. I never came across these books until they were pointed out to me, and I would not have completed the second if I were not an admirer of Mr. Banville's work. As an author he is wonderful even when his skills are not as apparent as is the case with these books.

He has a third forthcoming work as Mr. Black and that will likely decide if I continue to read these books. For people who have never read a book under the name Banville these books may well work. It would probably be wise to read reviews by people who know only the work of "Mr. Black".

Christine Falls
Christine Falls
by Benjamin Black
Edition: Paperback

3 of 6 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars The Pseudonym Is The Problem, 22 April 2008
This review is from: Christine Falls (Paperback)
The rationales for an author choosing to write under a different moniker are probably unlimited. The logic I have never understood is what will the explanation be once the true name is known? Several people have commented on interviews done by Mr. Banville where he evidently has stated the speed with which he pens these books is notable. My reading is that people also feel his speed is better described as haste and that these books are intentionally meant to be more commercial, publications to facilitate a payday for an author who is well respected/admired but might like to sell more books. In this case it may have worked. A brief review of works under the Banville name generally garner much less attention, the exception being the work that won The Man Booker Prize.

As I have read all of Mr. Banville's previously published novels this new name only served to ensure that I knew nothing of this book until someone pointed out to me, a year after publication, that he had written it. I doubt the goal was to make the work invisible to admirers of his work but that is exactly what happened in my case.

He may place any name he likes on his work but unless he is to radically change the manner with which he writes I do not believe there is massive audience awaiting his books. I would suggest that readers like me enjoy his work for the many reasons others do not. If you are looking for a tale told at a blistering pace look elsewhere, if you enjoy a tale that is wrapped up as quickly as the 60-minute TV mysteries (43 minutes without commercials) his books will try your patience.

This work is a grim tale of deceit, hypocrisy and betrayal by an institution that is supposed to exist in counterpoint to these failures of character. The author did not set out to lift anyone's spirits or provide even a mildly positive outcome. The events in this book document the depravity that comes with moral certitude together with the arrogance that a simplistic belief system facilitates.

And that may be why this book does not seem to be very appealing to many, it is relentless at exposing the flaws of its characters and the institutions they believe they are the champions of. It also reads like contemporary news accounts. The topic may be different but the evil is the same.

I don't like this version of "John Banville" as much as his other works. How much of this is caused by my curiosity as to why this work came out camouflaged is something I cannot gauge.

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