One-Minute Book Reviews

February 25, 2010

2010 Delete Key Awards Finalist #4 – ‘The Whole Truth’ by David Baldacci

Filed under: Delete Key Awards,News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:44 pm
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From David Baldacci’s The Whole Truth (Hachette/Vision):
“To say that this hit the earth like a molten-lava tsunami would have been the grossest of understatements.”
A “molten-lava tsunami”? Is FEMA prepared for one of those?

Read the full review of The Whole Truth.

The Delete Key Awards finalists are being announced in random order, beginning with No. 10, but numbered for convenience. This is finalist No. 4. You can also read about the Delete Key Awards on Twitter at @janiceharayda.com. The winner and runners-up will be announced on One-Minute Book Reviews and Twitter on March 15.

August 16, 2009

7 Questions and Answers About Dan Brown’s New Book, ‘The Lost Symbol,’ His First Novel Since ‘The Da Vinci Code’

Filed under: News,Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:17 pm
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Is it a conspiracy? Dan Brown has said little about the plot of The Lost Symbol, his first novel since The Da Vinci Code, which Doubleday will publish on Sept. 15. And while his publisher has been releasing cryptic teasers on Facebook and Twitter, these may read to the uninitiated like excerpts from a North Korean auto repair manual.

Here are some answers you don’t have to decode:

1. What is The Lost Symbol about?
The Lost Symbol brings back the fictional Harvard professor Robert Langdon, the protagonist of The Da Vinci Code, a thriller based on the premise that Jesus and Mary Magdalene had a child whose descendants became kings and queens of France. Langdon again tangles with codes and secret societies – this time, in a plot that unfolds over a 12-hour period. He first appeared in Brown’s Angels & Demons.

The cover of the U.K. edition of "The Lost Symbol."

The cover of the British edition of The Lost Symbol shows, as the Belfast Telegraph described it, “a key surrounded by flames and bearing a Freemasonry symbol above Capitol Hill, suggesting the action will unfold in America’s seat of power.” The slightly different American cover – which also shows the Capitol Building – supports this idea.

2. What is the “lost symbol” in the title of Brown’s book?
The BBC News reported that the novel is “believed to focus on freemasonry, with the lost symbol of the title a reference to a ciphered pictogram in an ancient book called The Key of Solomon.”

3. What about Leonardo da Vinci? Will he have a role in The Lost Symbol?
Da Vinci or his legacy will have a substantial role unless Brown’s publisher has misled libraries. The electronic catalog at a consortium of New Jersey libraries says The Lost Symbol involves the following: “Leonardo, da Vinci, 1452–1519 – Manuscripts – Fiction – Cryptographers – Fiction. Mystery fiction.”

4. What else is known about Brown’s new book?
Other facts appear in the “codes, cryptic trivia, puzzles, secret history, maps” and more that Doubleday has been releasing on Brown’s Facebook page and the Twitter feed for The Lost Symbol. The publisher said on Twitter that “Robert Langdon’s next adversary will be revealed when http://www.facebook.com/DanBrown reaches 100,000 fans.” Brown had 67,686 fans on the afternoon of August 16.

5. What do you learn about The Lost Symbol on Facebook and Twitter?
Facebook member Mark Gray suggested that The Lost Symbol may involve explosive sexual tension and, to support this idea, posted a diagram of two Washington landmarks. “When the energetically (male) Washington Monument is positioned in front of the energetically (female) Capitol Dome an explosion of force is created,” he writes. He added, “An OBELISK is a male PHALLIC. A DOME is a female WOMB.”

A Facebook member named Buddy didn’t think much of the idea. Buddy told Mark: “You keep focusing on the phallus and vulva, but what do you think it means? Surely, this is not an answer. Why would you think those focused on spiritual symbolism and related philosophy would obsess about male and female organs? The effort is to affect the minds of many not magically conjure up some energy effect. What would be the purpose?”

On Twitter, The Lost Symbol has fewer followers (3,210) than Shaquille O’Neal (1,964,646) and Bon Jovi (22,685) but more than Molly Ringwald (93).

6. When can you buy The Lost Symbol?
Doubleday will publish print and electronic editions of the book on Sept. 15, 2009, in the U.S. and Great Britain. You can preorder from Amazon, Barnes and Noble or an independent bookseller that you find through the Indie Store Finder on IndieBound.

7. Are you going to review The Lost Symbol on One-Minute Book Reviews?
I couldn’t finish The Da Vinci Code, so I’m not going to buy The Lost Symbol. And I don’t accept review copies from publishers. But I give out the Delete Key Awards for the year’s worst writing in books every year on March 15 and wouldn’t want to overlook a stellar candidate. So I’ve put my name on the waiting list for The Lost Symbol at my library. We’ll see if I get it before Malia Obama goes to college.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and former book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com and www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

July 30, 2009

‘Princeton Wouldn’t Engage in Corporate Espionage’ — James Rollins’s New Sigma Force Thriller, ‘The Doomsday Key’

Dan Brown’s new novel, The Lost Symbol, will be published on Sept. 15, 2009, but I’m not poring over the clues its publicists are scattering on the Twitter feed for the novel: I couldn’t finish The Da Vinci Code. So I’ve been looking into other thrillers about fraternal or ecclesiastical conspiracies, trying to answer the question, “Are any of these readable?” I found James Rollins’s new Sigma Force novel, The Doomsday Key (Morrow, 431 pp., $27), on a library display of New York Times bestsellers, and the dust-jacket copy said:

“At Princeton University, a famed geneticist dies inside a biohazard lab. In Rome, a Vatican archaeologist is found dead in St. Peter’s Basilica. In Africa, a U.S. Senator’s son is slain outside a Red Cross camp. The three murders on three continents bear a horrifying connection: all the victims are marked by a Druidic pagan cross burned into their flesh.

“The bizarre murders thrust Commander Gray Pierce and Sigma Force into a race against time to solve a riddle going back centuries, to a ghastly crime against humanity hidden within a cryptic medieval codex …”

This was not a promising beginning, so I’m sure whether I’ll read more of The Doomsday Key than I did of The Da Vinci Code. But here are a few quotes from the book that might help you decide whether it’s for you:

1. “Her methods were brutal – like murdering the Venetian curator – but who was he to judge? He had not walked in her shoes.”

2. “ ‘Great. So now we’re breaking into a prison and a tomb.’ Kowalski sank down and crossed his arms. ‘Nothing could possibly go wrong with that plan.’”

3. “’Princeton wouldn’t engage in corporate espionage.’”

4. “Gray weighed that information. The Knights Templar were considered to be the keepers of many secrets. Could this be one of them?”

5. “‘The priest should have been more careful to whom he made his confession.’”

www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

April 13, 2009

Review of Lisa Scottoline’s ‘Look Again’ in the Washington Post

Filed under: Mysteries and Thrillers — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 7:55 am
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Update: When I posted this, anyone could read the review I mention below without registering. But since then, it’s been archived, and you have to log in (free). Jan

Lisa Scottoline’s 16th thriller arrives in bookstores this week. The heroine of Look Again works my profession (journalism) and in a city (Philadelphia) not far from where I grew up. You can read my review of the book in today’s Washington Post.

January 9, 2009

Adultery for Third-Graders — A Review of ‘What I Saw and How I Lied,’ Winner of the 2008 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature

A tale of theft, blackmail, adultery, anti-Semitism and a possible murder, written at an 8-year-old reading level

What I Saw and How I Lied. By Judy Blundell. Scholastic, 284 pp., $16.99. Ages: See discussion below.

By Janice Harayda

What would you do if you were a publisher who knew that reading test scores were declining as children were seeing more sex and violent crimes in the media? Maybe play both sides against the middle as Scholastic has done with What I Saw and How I Lied, the winner of the 2008 National Book Award for young people’s literature.

This stylish literary thriller deals with subjects appropriate for the 13-to-18-year-old age range that the publisher recommends on its site — theft, blackmail, adultery, anti-Semitism and a possible murder. But Judy Blundell writes at a third-grade reading level in the novel, according to the readability statistics on Microsoft Word.

So who, exactly, is this book for? Much of the content is too mature for 8-year-olds. But the reading level is too low for the sophisticated adolescent and teenage girls likely gravitate to its glamorous, noir-ish cover, which shows a thin, beautiful model applying red lipstick. Blundell is condescending to them even if they enjoy its page-turner of a plot: Anyone who is ready for the subjects covered in this novel is also ready for a higher reading level.

Evie Spooner is 15 years old when her stepfather, Joe, returns from Austria in 1947, having overstayed the end of the war for murky reasons. Evie’s seductive mother has quit her job at Lord & Taylor – “Either that or get fired”— because veterans needed jobs. And she’s surprised her husband by learning to make Sunday suppers and perform other domestic tasks. “Son of a bitch,” Joe says of the change.

But the glow of the family reunion fades after Joe packs up the three of them for what he casts as an overdue Florida vacation. They settle into a Palm Beach hotel (aptly named Le Mirage), nearly deserted in the off-season. And Evie becomes swept up in a riptide of events that involves looted gold, a hurricane, an inquest into a possible homicide and her crush on a seductive 23-year-old who says he served with Joe overseas.

The plotting is tight and ingenious until an improbable last scene, and well-supported by details that evoke the era (including the chocolate cigarettes that Evie buys to “practice smoking”). And the book deals with larger issues than whether a murder occurred: What is loyalty? What do we owe the dead? Do truth and justice differ and, if so, how?

Questions like these appeal strongly to adolescents and teenagers, and this book could provide a framework for exploring them. As for their reading test scores: They’re not likely to improve if more publishers — encouraged by the National Book Award for this novel — put a senior prom dress on a third-grader’s soccer shorts.

Best line: A warning heard on the radio as a hurricane approaches Palm Beach: “Watch out for flying coconuts.”

Worst line: No. 1: “Our pipsqueak attorney had turned into a pretty decent linebacker.” It’s a stretch that a 15-year-old girl living in 1947 would know enough about linebackers to use the word in this way. No. 2: “Lana Turner was every man’s dream, sultry and blond. It was Lana filling out a sweater at a drugstore that got her a Hollywood contract.” That Turner was discovered at a drugstore is a myth. Even if the teenagers of 1947 believed the myth, the book is perpetuating this legend for a new generation of readers.

About the reading level: The reading level comes from the Flesch-Kincaid readability statistics that are part of the spell-checker on any recent version of Microsoft Word. To find it, I entered a minimum of 300 words from each of the following two-page sections of What I Saw and How I Lied: pages 36-37 (Grade 4.2), pages 136-137 (Grade 2.6) and pages 236-237 (3.7). I also entered all of last two pages (Grade 3.0). The post “Does Mitch Albom Think He’s Jesus?” lists the reading levels of authors and tells how to use Word to find the level of a book.

Furthermore: What I Saw and How I Lied
won a 2008 National Book Award. The National Book Foundation.
has posted an excerpt from and the citation for the novel on its site.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

October 13, 2008

Ghosts of Venice — Susan Hill’s Novella, ‘The Man in the Picture’

An 18th-century painting of masked revelers at the Grand Canal has sinister properties

The Man in the Picture: A Ghost Story. By Susan Hill. Overlook, 145 pp., $15.

By Janice Harayda

A Halloween-costume superstore has opened in my town and raised the frightening possibility that I will soon be the only person on the streets not dressed like Bigfoot or a tavern wench. I will defend to the death anyone’s sartorial-first-amendment right to don a Borat Lycra Mankini or a Sexy Ms. Mental Patient outfit (“includes shirt with vinyl restraints”).

But if you’re looking for another way to spend Halloween, why not read a ghost story? You might start with this intelligent new novella by the English author Susan Hill.

The Man in the Picture lacks the psychological complexity of Patrick McGrath’s neo-Gothic novels and Alison Lurie’s underrated short story collection, Women and Ghosts. But Hill’s book works on its own terms, which are those of a well-crafted Victorian ghost story. The opening lines set the tone:

“The story was told to me by my old tutor, Theo Parmitter, as we sat beside the fire in his college rooms one bitterly cold January night. There were still real fires in those days, the coals brought up by the servant in huge brass scuttles. I had traveled down from London to see my old friend, who was by then well into his eighties …”

The tale involves a painting that Theo bought at auction as a young man, an untitled 18th-century work showing masked revelers at a carnival in Venice. From several narrators we learn that that the picture has a chimerical effect: New people seem to keep appearing in it. The meaning of the changes begins to emerge when a countess summons Theo to her Yorkshire estate and links the painting to acts of sexual jealousy and revenge, an ill-fated honeymoon in Venice and the violent deaths of her husband and son. Lady Hawdon warns Theo that for his own good, he must sell her the painting. He doesn’t sell. Alas, poor Theo!

True to the conventions of Gothic novels, The Man in the Picture has shadowy hallways, long-buried secrets and odd noises in the night. It also includes a genteel psychopath whose mental instability appears contagious. Characters tend to stay conveniently out of range of pragmatists who could shout at crucial moments, “No! No! Don’t go into that empty room!”

By modern standards, much of the plot is no more rational than the idea that a priceless garnet would end up inside a Christmas goose in the Sherlock Holmes tale “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle.” And it isn’t supposed to meet contemporary tests of plausibility. Like dressing up as tavern wench, it’s unabashed retro escapism, well suited to a month when you may hear mysterious sounds as you stumble through the darkened rooms of a haunted house.

Best line: “The faces of the revelers were many of them the classic Venetian, with prominent noses, the same faces that could be seen on Magi and angels, saints and popes, in the great paintings that filled Venice’s churches.”

Worst line: “She was extremely old, with the pale-parchment textured skin that goes with great age, a skin like the paper petals of dried Honesty.” The similie reaches for a higher tone than the rest of the book.

Recommendation? In the U.S. ghost stories have been so thoroughly absorbed into the horror-novel genre that, except in children’s fiction, few writers attempt them and readers tend to associate them with lumbering behemoths like Stephen King’s The Tommyknockers. The Man in the Picture gives Americans a chance to rediscover the appeal of these stories in a purer and in some ways more elegant form.

Because of its conversational tone and multiple narrators, this is also good book to read aloud, which you could probably do in less than two and a half hours. Book clubs might consider having members take turns reading this one aloud at a meeting instead of reading it in advance.

Published: October 2008 www.susan-hill.com/

Second opinion: Salley Vickers observed perceptively the Independent: “As with many successful ghost stories – The Turn of the Screw comes to mind – the form of the book is a re-telling; indeed, a series of re-tellings. Hill knows that the sinister is enhanced by obliqueness. By giving us a chain of raconteurs, she skilfully conveys the ambience in which the uncanny survives via rumour and report.”

Furthermore: Hill also wrote two mystery novels about Chief Inspector Simon Serailler and The Woman in Black www.thewomaninblack.com/, the theatrical version of which opened in 1989 in London’s West End and is one of its longest-running shows.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning journalist who has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

July 21, 2008

Jodi Picoult’s ‘Change of Heart’ – Looking for Jesus in All the Wrong Places

Filed under: Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:04 am
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Miracles occur in a New Hampshire prison after a man ends up on death row for crimes that occurred when he was a 33-year-old carpenter

Change of Heart: A Novel. By Jodi Picoult. Simon & Schuster/Atria, 447 pp., $26.95.

By Janice Harayda

Change of Heart is the best novel I’ve read in a long time about religious gobbledygook. After 15 books, Jodi Picoult still cares enough about her craft to leave most of the Da Vinci Code knockoffs behind in a cloud of incense. She’s a more careful and interesting writer than Dan Brown and at times shows an appealingly droll wit. And she has more substantive concerns than off-the-wall ecclesiastical conspiracies, including the case for abolishing the death penalty. Picoult is also a conscientious researcher. For this book she visited a lethal-injection chamber and, when she needed to learn about the Gnostic Gospels, got private tutorials from Elaine Pagels, one of the country’s foremost scholars on the subject.

But in Change of Heart Picoult serves up characters with some peculiar traits or, rather, non-traits. They live in New Hampshire, but none has a credible New Hampshire accent or other characteristics that reflect the state or even New England — they might as well live in Nebraska. The oddest character is a 33-year-old carpenter who is sentenced to death for murdering a young girl and a policeman, then performs apparent miracles in a state prison. Shay Bourne cures the sick, brings a dead bird to life and feeds seven men with one piece of Bazooka bubble gum. Halfway through the book, you’re wondering what he could do it they ever ran low on the spelt bread and tilapia at Whole Foods. Bourne also wants to donate his heart after his execution to the gravely ill sister of the girl he killed. To do this, he needs to persuade a court that his religion requires such an action. And that effort pits him at different times against the mother of the dead child, a priest who has a crisis of faith, and a female lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union whose only recent dates have been court dates. All of them run a footrace against time his scheduled execution approaches.

Behind all of this lies a larger question than whether Bourne will be able donate his heart to a girl who needs it: What is a religion? Picoult treats traditional faiths respectfully. But one of her themes surfaces in the words of an inmate with AIDS: “Religion was supposed to be a blanket drawn up to your chin to keep you warm, a promise that when it came to the end, you wouldn’t die alone – but it could just as easily leave you shivering out in the cold if what you believed became more important than the fact that you believed.”

Change of Heart has many lines that one that are so vague that they could be used to justify almost any kind of religious hokum. And in age of anything-goes spirituality, that may help to explain why the book sped to the top of the New York Times bestseller list. Picoult has cross-bred three popular genres — the courtroom drama, the religious thriller and the romance novel — in package much easier to digest than the arcana of The Da Vinci Code as long as you don’t expect too much plausibility from the plot. A telling scene occurs near the end of the book when a doctor suggests to the priest and the civil-liberties lawyer that they call the governor in an effort to break an impasse in Bourne’s case. When they don’t respond, he says, “Well, isn’t that what happens on TV? And in John Grisham novels?” You might think that Picoult is engaging in bit of self-satire here, signaling her intention to take her plot in a direction Grisham wouldn’t, but two pages later, her characters are breezing through the metal detectors at the statehouse.

Best line: Maggie Bloom notes that having a body wrap requires her to disrobe and pay a stranger to handle her body: “Was it just me, or was there a great deal that spa treatments had in common with prostitution?” Then why have the wrap? “The problem was, you never heard anyone say, ‘Wow, check out the brain on that babe.’”

Worst line: Convicted murderer Shay Bourne explains why he doesn’t go to church: “Not that Jesus wasn’t a really cool guy – great teacher, excellent speaker, yadda yadda yadda. But … Son of God? Where’s the proof?” Later, after a correctional officer survives a deadly assault by an inmate, a priest asks a doctor: “You don’t think it’s possible that Mr. Smythe was … well … resurrected?”

Published: March 2008 www.jodipicoult.com

One-Minute book Reviews is for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

twitter.com/janiceharayda

February 29, 2008

2008 Delete Key Awards Finalist #3 – D. L. Wilson’s ‘Unholy Grail’

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Delete Key Awards Finalist #3 – From D. L. Wilson’s Unholy Grail:

“’Believe me, I doubt if the Church has a secret agency that would go around killing people.’”

“’Here’s the kicker, Charlie.’ Carlota sank into her chair and let out a sigh. ‘Professor Hamar’s husband felt so much guilt over contributing to the disease that killed their son that he committed suicide.’ Charlie smacked his hands to his head so hard he knocked his cap off.”

“A uniformed task force had been sent to the Hotel Royal and, thank God, there was no dead priest in any of the rooms.”

Is it just a coincidence that The Da Vinci Code has inspired so many knock-offs? Or could it result from a conspiracy surpressed for thousands of years?

A hat tip to Bill Peschel at Reader’s Almanac www.planetpeschel.com, which has an extensive archive of reviews of mysteries and thrillers, for this one.

The 10 Delete Key Awards finalists are numbered but announced in random order. 

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

February 18, 2008

Is This ‘Da Vinci Code’ Acolyte a Delete Key Awards Candidate?

Filed under: Delete Key Awards,Mysteries and Thrillers,Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 9:36 pm
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What kind of writing might qualify for one of the Delete Key Awards, given to authors who don’t use their delete keys enough? Bill Peschel over at Reader’s Almanac nails it with his suggestion of D. L. Wilson’s Unholy Grail, a Da Vinci Code acolyte that involves a manuscript said to be written by Jesus’ brother, James, and includes characters such as rogue priest who is killing others around the world and marking their bodies with stigmata.

This paperback original might seem like small potatoes compared with Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach (longlisted for a “Bad Sex” in fiction award) and Steve Martin and Roz Chast’s The Alphabet From A to Y, a book for roughly 2-to-4-year-olds that sends the message that kids are never too young to make fun of people with disabilities. But Bill noted that Unholy Grail “fights above its weight with its combination of subject matter, timeliness and powerfully bad writing.”

Here are three of my favorite Delete Key contenders from this religious thriller, chosen from a rich list that Bill sent:

“For two thousand years, Christianity’s held up pretty darn well.”

“’Here’s the kicker, Charlie,’ Carlota sank into her chair and let out a sigh. ‘Professor Hamar’s husband felt so much guilt over contributing to the disease that killed their son that he committed suicide.’ Charlie smacked his hands to his head so hard he knocked his cap off.”

“A uniformed task force had been sent to the Hotel Royal and, thank God, there was no dead priest in any of the rooms.”

You can find a review of Unholy Grail on Bill Peschel’s site www.planetpeschel.com/index?/reviews/bookreview/the_jesus_and_mary_chain/ and a blurb for it from Clive Cussler (“a tale rich with intrigue”) on D.L. Wilson’s www.dlwilsonbooks.com.To find out if the novel it made Delete Key Award shortlist, check back on Feb. 29, when One-Minute Book Reviews will announce the finalists for this year’s prizes.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

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