Friday, December 27, 2002

10 outstanding reads, 10 stand-out stinkers

Yes, at 3 a.m., book reviewers do toss and turn, worrying that a deserving debut novel, a deeply researched history or that truly moving memoir has been buried beneath an avalanche of glossy publicity kits or ignored because of deadline pressures. But we do our best. Alphabetized by author, here is a sampling of some of the outstanding books of 2002 as well as books we found disappointing — or worse.

The best

1. Master of the Senate by Robert Caro (Knopf, $35). Caro writes history with the touch of a novelist who values a sense of place and mood. Though the book is anchored by relentless research, Caro knows that history is more than facts. Master of the Senate, the third of Caro's four volumes on Lyndon Johnson, is about LBJ's Senate years, from 1949 to 1960. No writer offers a more vivid sense of modern history.

2. The Emperor of Ocean Park by Stephen Carter (Knopf, $26.95). Although wrapped in the conventions of a mystery, this long, profoundly satisfying novel wrestles with life's most perplexing issues: religious faith, sibling bonds, human weakness, truth, marriage, ambition, money, race. Carter's answer on how to live the good life is not found in automobile showrooms or Restoration Hardware, but in the Bible. This resonating novel is one to read and reread.

3. Atonement by Ian McEwan (Doubleday, $26). McEwan, who won the Booker Prize in 1998 for Amsterdam, infuses his slyly graceful Atonement with energy. Its historic sweep from 1935 to 1999 uncovers betrayal, guilt and redemption. It is a provocative engagement of the senses, an adroit management of grand themes, grand schemes and grand resolutions.

4. Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer (Houghton Mifflin, $24). In this debut novel, Foer fictionalizes his voyage at age 20 to trace his family history in Ukraine. He inserts vibrant characters, invents clever plot points and imagines events from centuries ago. The result is a hilarious yet heartbreaking tale of family and discovery.

5. Roscoe by William Kennedy (Viking, $24.95). Kennedy has written seven novels set in Albany, N.Y. (Ironweed is the best known.) But he shows no signs of overmining the territory. His latest is an exuberant portrait of political and sexual betrayal, set mostly between World Wars I and II, notable years for crime and punishment in New York's state capital.

6. The Nanny Diaries by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus (St. Martin's, $24.95). On the surface, this is a portrait of a young girl caring for a darling little boy neglected by his wealthy, self-absorbed Manhattan parents. Yet the debut novel is both hilarious and far more profound than one realizes at first. For one thing, the mother, Mrs. X, is not the one-dimensional she-devil she appears to be. (Selfish and tormented, she bears her secret sorrows.) The novel reminds us that more tears are shed over answered prayers.

7. The Founding Fish by John McPhee (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $25). McPhee is an amateur (except when it comes to writing) who delights in hanging out with the best pros. Which is what he has been doing for 26 books, from a profile of a college basketball player named Bill Bradley to his Pulitzer-winning opus on geology. His latest weaves wonders about what might seem a small topic: shad, the most storied of American fish.

8. I Don't Know How She Does It: The Life of Kate Reddy, Working Mother by Allison Pearson (Knopf, $23). Often compared to fellow British female protagonist Bridget Jones, Kate Reddy exists as a far more complex, intelligent and tormented soul. This tale of a working mother in London's financial district offers up observations that will resonate with readers long after they have finished the highly praised novel. Though the ending wraps the story up too neatly, the novel has far more depth than simply another dispatch from the eternal mommy wars waged between working and stay-at-home mothers.

9. Hell to Pay by George P. Pelecanos (Little, Brown, $24.95). Masters of the crime novel genre like Dennis Lehane, Michael Connelly and Elmore Leonard read Pelecanos. And for a lot of good reasons. Hell to Pay continues the emotional journeys and crime-solving escapades of Derek Strange and Terry Quinn, the ex-cops Pelecanos introduced in last year's knockout, Right as Rain. Pelecanos' fiction is excruciatingly realistic, his protagonists are flawed but sensitive, and his bad guys are very, very bad.

10. The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold (Little, Brown, $21.95). A lovely novel that begins with the rape and murder of a 14-year-old girl. An audacious contradiction? Perhaps, but Sebold's debut novel rises, literally and figuratively, above its plot. A surprise best seller, it's propelled by the voice of its questioning narrator, the murdered girl. In the end, it's more about redemption than death.

The disappointments

1. Red Rabbit by Tom Clancy (Putnam, $28.95). His 10th novel featuring Jack Ryan is less of Clancy's usual techno-thriller and more of a conventional spy story. Set in 1983, it's about a Soviet plot to kill the pope. Its biggest problem is that it doesn't need to be 618 pages; it takes Clancy a good 200 pages to get the plot going. For a writer whose strength is neither dialogue nor characterization, that's inexcusable. It's also dangerous to fall asleep reading a 600-page book.

2. Prey by Michael Crichton (HarperCollins, $26.95). In his new novel, Crichton tries to scare the bejesus out of us with a harrowing tale of nanoparticles gone berserk. If you don't get what all the nano-fuss is about, Crichton makes a valiant but futile effort to evoke the dangers of mixing nanotechnology, biotechnology, computer technology and humanity's reckless egotism. Prey is a big fat tech manual wrapped around a threadbare story. The subject matter is way too complicated for commercial fiction.

3. Visions of Sugar Plums by Janet Evanovich (St. Martin's, $19.95). Evanovich has built a loyal following of readers who have devoured all eight of her mystery novels about a zany New Jersey bounty hunter named Stephanie Plum. Apparently, those readers will follow Evanovich anywhere. A disjointed plot involves one character named Sandy Claws and another, Diesel, who may or may not be from another world. In this world, it looks like little more than an attempt to cash in on the popularity of Christmas novels.

4. The Cell by John Miller and Michael Stone, with Chris Mitchell (Hyperion, $24.95). This book promised to reveal why the FBI and CIA failed to stop the Sept. 11 terrorists. The authors are veteran crime reporters better suited to writing about Mafia thugs. They have lots of FBI sources but are in over their heads in dealing with international terrorism. They use second- and third-hand information but write about events as if they were witnesses.

5. More, Now, Again: A Memoir of Addiction by Elizabeth Wurtzel (Simon & Schuster, $25). The author of Prozac Nation, that shapely Harvardian is at it again. Now our struggling writer has developed an addiction to Ritalin, which she grinds up and snorts while trying to finish a book. And again, we are treated to her endless self-absorption mixed with self-pity.

6. Halloween by Jerry Seinfeld, illustrated by James Bennett (Little, Brown, $15.95). This reader could fill an entire newspaper with savage reviews of trashy kids' books that have been written, so to speak, by celebrities and/or adult authors. Halloween is one of the worst. It is not a bit funny. And it features a particularly shameful moment when the young Jerry look-alike sneers at an old lady who dares to ask him, "What are you supposed to be?" He hits her in the head with her own orange peanut-shaped marshmallow, snarling, "We're going for name candy only this year."

7. The Book of Mean People by Toni and Slade Morrison, illustrations by Pascal Lemaitre (Hyperion, $16.99). Being a Nobel Prize laureate is no guarantee you can write a children's book. This strange offering involves various definitions of what makes people mean. Mothers yelling at their children or trying to feed them green peas are demonized. (By that standard, 99.9% of mommies are mean.) By the end of the book, it's hard to figure out who isn't mean, except for the rabbit hero and his dog.

8. God Bless America, song and music by Irving Berlin, accompanying CD performed by Barbra Streisand, illustrated by Lynn Munsinger (HarperCollins, $15.99). As a book illustrating Berlin's beautiful and patriotic song, this is an acceptable title. And Munsinger's bear illustrations are pleasant. But the book would benefit from more information about the brilliant and fascinating Berlin, who published the song in 1938. And the accompanying CD of God Bless America, performed by Streisand, illuminates why it is the rare celebrity who should venture into the kids' market. Save it for Vegas, Babs.

9. What About the Big Stuff? Finding Strength and Moving Forward When the Stakes are High by Richard Carlson (Hyperion, $19.95). Filled with platitudes about learning patience, the importance of meditating and taking time to be kind, this new offering is ineffectual. Readers would be better served reading Harold Kushner's When Bad Things Happen to Good People, or any books by the Dalai Lama, when "Big Stuff" happens. Carlson's anecdotes about his back problems and his thoughts on forgiveness, illness, death and 9/11 are pretty thin.

10. The One Minute Millionaire: The Enlightened Way to Wealth by Mark Victor Hansen and Robert Allen (Harmony, $19.95). This self-help tale mixes obvious fiscal advice — use only one credit card; be persistent in pursuing your goals — with a far-fetched novel about a widow who must earn $1 million in 90 days to regain custody of her children from her evil in-laws. Save your money. Avoid this book.

Contributing: By Deirdre Donahue, Bob Minzesheimer, Carol Memmott, other USA TODAY staff writers and freelancers

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