Archive for the 'book reviews' Category

2017 Book of the Year. A Rising Man by Abir Mukherjee

Book of the Year.  A Rising Man by Abir Mukherjee.  This debut historical mystery featuring Captain Sam Wyndham and Sergeant Banerjee in post-WWI Calcutta is a wonderfully complex tale.  Its central character and narrator is the recently-arrived detective, formerly of Scotland Yard and with a small opium problem, who gives readers a first-hand account of his struggles to adapt to the world that is India at the time.  There is the stifling bureaucracy filled with corruption, the money-hungry English capitalists, the violently paranoid military intelligence organization trying to keep the Raj in power and the developing native nationalist groups trying to bring it all down.  The death of a high-ranking official in a Black Town alleyway brings Wyndham and his Cambridge-educated Indian sergeant in contact with all these elements as well as the normal unsavory denizens of the city’s underworld.  This core mystery is elaborate and Mukherjee also does a fine job of developing secondary characters from each of the complimentary groups.  Not since the early books in the Joe Sandilands series by Barbara Cleverly has there been such a good mystery set in the Jewel in the Crown.

This year I also read Arjun Raj Gaind’s debut mystery, “A Very Pukka Murder,” set in 1909 India.  Although I liked the protagonist, Maharajah Sikander Singh, and there is potential in the supporting cast, I found the plotting unimaginative and formulaic and the “reveal” was tediously long.  I will not be reading this series any further.

For all my previous “books of the year” lists, see my dedicated page for these titles.


2017 Runner-up, Historical Mystery. Ascension by Gregory Dowling

Runner-up, Historical Mystery.  Ascension by Gregory Dowling.  This debut historical mystery contains all the right ingredients: an interesting protagonist, several worthwhile supporting players whose stories could be developed in future books, a strong mystery to solve, and a satisfying atmosphere.  Set in 1749 Venice, readers are introduced to Alvise Marangon, a tour guide fluent in both Italian and English, who makes his living leading British visitors around the city with assistance from gondolier and best friend, Bepi.  When one of his charges is accused of murder, Alvise finds himself reluctantly pulled into the tangled web of Venetian occult, politics, and espionage.  His friends, bookseller Fabrizio Busetto and his daughter Lucia, warn him to resist investigating further, but also assist him with information on the history of the city and the powerful families that have secrets to hide.  The pace of the story is good and Dowling sprinkles in just enough humor to compliment the several, dark twists in the tale as Alvise gets closer and closer to the heart of the conspiracy.

For all my previous “books of the year” lists, see my dedicated page for these titles.

2017 Honorable Mention, Historical Mystery. The Bookseller’s Tale by Ann Swinfen

Honorable Mention, Historical Mystery.  The Bookseller’s Tale by Ann Swinfen.  This Oxford-trained scholar and author of another historical mystery series set in late 16th century Europe returns to a college setting in this series featuring bookseller Nicholas Elyot in 1353.  The Black Death has left him a widower with two small children, but he manages his shop and household with the assistance of his older sister.  Elyot is drawn into the disappearance of a promising student by his friend Jordain Brinkylsworth, Dean of Hart Hall.  The strength of this debut and its successor, The Novice’s Tale, is how Swinfen creates a picturesque atmosphere of the town and her ability to develop appealing characters, both Elyot and the surrounding cast.  The mysteries, especially in the second book, could be a bit more complicated, but these are enjoyable reads and hard to put down.

For all my previous “books of the year” lists, see my dedicated page for these titles.

2017 Best Non-fiction. Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted by Jennifer Armstrong

Best Non-fiction.  Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted: And all the brilliant minds who made “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” a classic by Jennifer Keishin Armstrong.  Along with “All in the Family,” no television show in the 1970s was more influential than “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.”  Armstrong attempts to tell its complete story, beginning with the long, difficult saga that creators James L. Brooks and Allan Burns faced in bringing a female-led comedy to a male-dominated industry.  All of the casting stories chronicling the actor’s histories, including the star’s own, tell how serendipitous it was that they even made it to air at all.  Armstrong also provides tales on how the theme song was made, how the writing staff came together and how the show was saved at the last minute by the introduction of just a few lines of dialogue in the pilot.  She goes to describe the seven years of the life of the show and its influence on not only its principal players and their future careers, but also on the best shows of the next decade, including Taxi, Cheers, and The Cosby Show.

Understandably, there is a lot of discussion about its impact on women.  She focuses primarily on the opportunities for women to break into the writing rooms and then move up into executive positions so that future talents like Tina Fey, Oprah Winfrey and Shonda Rhimes could thrive.  But she also talks about the complex relationship the show and its stars had with the feminism movement of the 1970s and the conservatism that eventually followed.  If you haven’t seen the show, then this book isn’t for you, but if you are a fan, then you will be entertained by the stories of how this group beat the odds and came out on top.

For all my previous “books of the year” lists, see my dedicated page for these titles.

The Dark Game: true spy stories by Paul Janeczko

My second older book (read in 2015) is “The Dark Game: true spy stories” by Paul Janeczko.  This non-fiction title written for a teenage audience is another recommendation from the Unshelved Book Club.  There was a lot of interesting information in it, especially the early sections on spying in the Revolutionary and Civil Wars.  It is not terribly in-depth, but still well-written.  It uses a chronological arrangement with the two sections mentioned above, then WWI, WWII, the Cold War and a final section on moles in the CIA and FBI during the second half of the 20th century.  Janeczko does a nice job of blending profiles of individuals, organizational histories and technological advances so that it doesn’t become too dry.  It was written in 2010, so it does not include Edward Snowden or any of the NSA eavesdropping stories.  One negative is that is not very visually exciting with only 33 photos in 240 pages and all in black and white, probably for budget reasons.  But the images are interesting and add to the text.

Tomorrow we’ll start with the best books read this past year.

Toy time: a look back at the most-beloved Toys of decades past by Christopher Byrne

It’s December and time for my “Books of the Year” list.  Unlike last year, which was a phenomenal year for non-fiction, this year was a barren desert in that category, with only one book worth mentioning.  Therefore, I have decided to start with two older books which were quite good, but not good enough to make the list of top books in the year that I read them.

Toy time: a look back at the most-beloved Toys of decades past by Christopher Byrne (read in 2013).  Visitors to my home know that I have a small collection of toys and games that I managed to save from my childhood of the 1960s and 70s with some additional selections from my mom’s toys of the 1930s.  Therefore, it will come as no surprise that I enjoyed Christopher Byrne’s encyclopedia of almost 100 toys from the 1950s, 60s, 70s and 80s.  Each short chapter is divided into three or four sections describing the history and development of each toy, its cultural significance, “why kids loved it” and “where is it now.”  Although the update section was weak and frequently repetitive with tales of discontinued products of interest to collectors only, the history and development stories are fascinating and full of great toy trivia.  Byrne’s love of the subject comes through on every page and his inclusive writing style makes readers feel that they are sharing the experience of discovering these toys with him.  The artwork includes not only pictures of the toys themselves, but occasionally the packaging and advertising as well.

This is the third “toy history” title I’ve read.  In 2007, it was “The game makers: the story of Parker Brothers from Tiddledy Winks to Trivial Pursuit” by Philip E. Orbanes and in 2006 it was “The playmakers: amazing origins of timeless toys” by Tim Walsh.  Orbanes’s book was quite good and Walsh’s history of the 20th century U.S. toy industry with lots of trivia about classic toys and games made my Book Awards list that year.

2016 Book of the Year. But what if we’re wrong? by Chuck Klosterman

Book of the Year.  But what if we’re wrong? by Chuck Klosterman.  The central premise of Klosterman’s book about the past, present and future is to ask if the “ideas so ingrained in the collective consciousness that it seems foolhardy to even wonder if they’re potentially untrue” turn out to be totally wrong.  He begins with the topic of gravity.  Aristotle’s definition of gravity stood for centuries before being overturned by Copernicus and Newton, whose ideas lasted until Einstein, whose ideas are still being expanded upon.   Klosterman continues in a series of essays examining topics such as which one artist will be used in textbooks many centuries from now to represent this century’s books or rock and roll music or television the same way we use John Philip Sousa to define marching music (assuming we still have textbooks or even schools).  He also questions whether organized sports and democracy will continue to exist and examines things like Phantom Time and artificial intelligence.

Usually, Klosterman’s time horizon is centuries, but readers can easily ask the same questions of current trends: are political gridlock and climate change permanent or is there some transformative event that could happen to change everything again?  And what changes will happen just in our lifetimes?  When my grandparents were born, the tsars had ruled Russia for over 300 years, the IOC had never hosted an Olympic Games, and the concept of a black or female or Catholic or transgender U.S. President was not to be believed.

This book makes an interesting companion piece to 2013’s Best Non-fiction winner: The Half-life of Facts: why everything we know has an expiration date by Samuel Arbesman.

For all my previous “books of the year” lists, see my dedicated page for these titles.

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