on Feb. 21, 2011
What an intelligent, taut thriller this is.
Set in Northern California’s Silicon Valley, the “club” of the title is made up of four geeks who failed when they had the chance to profit from their high-flying (for awhile) software startup, Defiance.
Jacob Miller, the engineering genius behind Defiance, never sold a single share of stock, so when the bubble burst and Defiance’s market cap fell from $15 billion to zero, he earned the title King of Fools.
Not part of the club, living large and planning a run for the U.S. Senate, is Jacob’s stepbrother and former Defiance front man Colin Schaeffer. Why is Colin rich and Jacob broke? The feds have been asking the same question but have failed to come up with evidence to indict Colin for any kind of wrongdoing.
The night the U.S. Attorney announces an end to the investigation, clearing the way for Colin’s entry into politics, the Fools gather to literally cry in their beer and bemoan the unfairness of life. After sufficient pitchers are consumed, they come up with the un-Mensa-like idea of egging Colin’s beautiful gated mansion. This childish prank sets in motion events that will reveal the source of Colin’s wealth, threaten his family and career and lock the stepbrothers into a violent dance with a Melissa Etheridge-obsessed lesbian assassin.
Though Jacob is bitter about Colin’s good fortune in the face of his own failure – not the least of that good fortune being his marriage to Jacob’s classy former girlfriend – when he has the opportunity to wreck Colin’s life, he cannot do it. The bonds of childhood and the gratitude for the golden boy who protected him from bullies and tried to teach him about sports are too strong.
Colin suffers no such pangs of loyalty, to Jacob or anyone else. When his campaign manager offers to put him in touch with the one person who can make any lingering concerns about law enforcement go away, he scarcely hesitates before reaching out to the anonymous firstname.lastname@example.org.
A soulless phony who somehow sees himself as a cross between Bobby Kennedy and Teddy Roosevelt, Colin is quickly out of his depth in dealing with the woman who calls herself “Mel” and whose only ambitions are to work as a bodyguard for Etheridge and to become a single mother.
In the end, of course, at least one of the three must go down, and it becomes a question of whose bad judgment will turn out to be the most catastrophic.
We don’t find any bio information on Craig Mallery. Based on his easy descriptions of the Silicon Valley, he apparently is or was part of that world of dot.coms, venture capitalists, fast fortunes and equally fast collapses.
The writing in Fools Club is crisp and clean. The plot moves quickly but not at the expense of the players’ depth. Each character is believable and recognizable except perhaps Patrini, the beautiful female Fool who secretly has the hots for Jacob. The techie/geeky stuff serves the story well and doesn’t compete with it.
Like the other books we recommend, if it were published under the name of a well-known writer and you paid $25 for it, you would not be disappointed. If you compare Fools Club to a David Baldacci novel – a fair comparison for the genre – you’d find the writing much better, the plot more interesting and the characters more believable.
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More than “chick lit,” this first-time novel by a retired psychotherapist is the story of a woman who gave up her newborn daughter for adoption, then is reunited with her three decades later.
Along with all the attendant joy and awkwardness – though perhaps not the anger – you would imagine, both the mother and her late-20s daughter have secrets they don’t want to share with the other. Marsha is a successful mystery writer who, on a working vacation to Italy, begins writing scenes involving her idealized adult daughter. In truth, she knows nothing about her, but she’s reached that time in her life when she would give anything to meet the girl who was the product of a brief fling with a charming Italian lover.
Benny, the daughter, has had a seemingly happy childhood scarred by events nearly no one else knows about. Although she initiates the reunion, her standoffishness with her biological mother cannot help but hurt Marsha, who nonetheless tries to be content merely with Benny’s presence.
The novel’s setting in an Italian village (interspersed with trips to Marsha’s London home and flashbacks to Benny’s childhood in Australia) is well drawn and makes the reader envy the characters who spend their summers attending a language school there. The book’s title is a literal representation of one of Benny’s activities and a metaphorical description of what’s going on with the women and their supportive friends.
Although this is Marian Van Eyk McCain’s first novel, she has written several non-fiction books, which undoubtedly enabled her to develop the tools of an author. The book’s structure is not simple, with the voice alternating among the women and their male friend Frank and the time and location following the speaker. But McCain pulls it off to create an interesting character study and a compelling story of a different kind of love.
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A police procedural elevated way beyond the norm of its genre by its setting, Lost to the World takes place in the laboratories of polio researchers at Johns Hopkins University in 1954.
Julia Dell, a secretary in the labs who discovers the body of one of her boss’s colleagues, is herself a polio survivor – “a polio” in the crude parlance of the day. She’s engaged to be married, but not very excitedly so, and lives with her over-protective parents. Her supreme sense of urgency about the work being done at Johns Hopkins, and elsewhere by scientists like Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin, has nothing to do with hope for a better life for herself. She knows her ruined leg will never be repaired, but she aches for the still-healthy children who will contract the disease if a vaccine isn’t found soon.
Detective Sean Reilly is determined to solve the scientist’s murder, but he’s distracted by single-fatherhood. His wife died of cancer a year ago, leaving him with two young sons and a babysitter not pleased to be whipsawed by a detective’s irregular working hours. He’s lonely, somewhat scared and, like Julia, beaten down by life’s circumstances.
And then there is the corpse, Dr. Myron Lowenstein – or is it Dr. Lowenstein? What could be easier than to identify a scientist murdered in his own lab at a prominent research institution like Hopkins? In this novel, even the dead guy has a back story.
Sternberg’s universe is populated by old-school Irish and Italian Catholics and Jewish intellectuals, and her story combines elements of anti-Semitism, The Glass Menagerie, gold-digging single women coming of age in post-World War II America and ambitious scientists competing to find the discovery of a lifetime. Baby Boomers who were children in the ‘50s will relate to the prominence of polio in adult conversations of the time and will recall receiving one or both of the new polio vaccines.
Though the identify of the murderer is kept well under wraps until very near the end of the novel, the reader may think he/she knows where the personal story is heading. But there are twists there, too.
This is the second Sean Reilly novel published by Sternberg’s tiny family publishing business, Istoria Books, and the third is in the works. If the others are as well-researched and as finely drawn as this one, she’ll have a franchise that reasonably can be mentioned in the same sentence with Scott Turow’s.
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Stephen Goldin describes himself as a professional fantasy and science fiction writer and an atheist.
The first of those descriptors is readily apparent in Polly, but a surprise turn makes the last relevant as well.
I know I risk turning off some readers if I let on that the book’s protagonist, Herodotus, has the greatest sex of his life with a beautiful woman who may actually be God. But reviews are supposed to warn readers away from books they won’t like, so perhaps that’s not a bad thing. Most readers, though, would lose out if they let a little thing like that deter them from reading this unusual little novel.
As the book opens, Herodotus has just awakened in terror to find his bookstore on fire and smoke billowing upward into his second-floor apartment. His wife has left him, and the IRS claims he owes $8,000, which he doesn’t have. Now this.
Short on good options, he sets out in his decrepit Corolla to pay an unannounced call on his brother, who lives on a ranch in Nevada. On the way, the car breaks down in the grueling desert heat right in front of a mansion. Polly is its owner.
It must be said that Goldin is an atheist with a great sense of humor who doesn’t take himself too seriously. He is well grounded in the Bible and theology – and the Marx Brothers. The verbal sparring that takes place between Herodotus and Polly, whoever she may actually be, is brilliant from beginning to end.
In brief, Polly is a lion-owning, acrobatic, Japanese-speaking, gourmet-cooking nuclear physicist who hosts a houseful of friendly people whose lives she has touched with her kindness and generosity. Not that she always seems so kind to Herodotus, who is understandably confused by such oddities as an elevator in a two-story mansion that ascends for 13 floors.
The book is an allegory of self-discovery – or perhaps, universe discovery – by Herodotus, who can’t possibly match wits with the wise-cracking, teasing Polly. Without giving away more, let’s just say the conversation, which is laced with hundreds of puns and one-liners, eventually works its way around to the Supreme Being.
Whether she is or isn’t literally divine, Polly’s organizing principle is that entropy – the constant tendency of the universe to run down – is unstoppable, even by her, but nevertheless must be resisted.
Overwhelmed with Polly’s seeming omniscience, Herodotus presses for answers to the big questions about life and thereafter. Eventually he asks, “So fighting entropy is the point?” “No,” Polly replies, “Fighting entropy is what I choose to do.”
She wages the battle on an incalculable number of fronts, including helping a group of protestors save a polluted river, teaching adult illiterates to read and befriending a child with leukemia.
Polly is the kind of book aspiring writers should read just to study the craft. Goldin’s writing is fastidious. And he seemingly has the gift (Would that be a theological term?) of calling on everything he knows from the silly to the profound to create a story that starts out being entertaining and winds up being interesting, even thought-provoking.
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Freddy Mossman is too young to be washed up as a British SIS agent, but that’s essentially the situation he’s in because of a major screw-up on an assignment in Mexico. As a way to stay in the agency, he’s agreed to manage a safe house lodged in a small-time Parisian porn theater.
While Freddy ponders whether he’s got the right moral code for his chosen career, across town his former girlfriend Holly Henderson tries to fit in with the French company that acquired her former employer and moved her to the home office.
Stirring the pot is Freddy’s friend Jay McFarlane, a talented but not over-ambitious photographer who already has found his niche in life – causing as much trouble as possible for those he thinks deserve it. Invited to Paris to lighten his friend’s mood, Jay has attracted his own set of government operatives.
Jay’s idea of fun is to steal the neighborhood pimp’s classic car or to put Freddy in a position in which he must fight a celebrity’s two bodyguards. He’s not even above insulting the wife of Holly’s boss at the party she hopes to use to salvage her career. In a way, this is a high-jinks book. There is lots of violence, but most of it takes place off-stage.
As expected in a well-written thriller, it’s usually unclear who’s doing what to whom and why. When Freddy’s former mentor Thomas Veil shows up to offer him a way out of his dead-beat job, all the loose ends – Mexico, the spy shot dead in the theater by a gunman wearing a clown mask, and the head and hands of another spook left in Freddy’s fridge – all come together in a very satisfying denouement.
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There may be other novels featuring baseball umpires as lead characters, but I haven’t read one. It sounds almost like an exercise in a creative writing class: Set the person who is supposed to remain invisible at the center of a story involving love and hate, success and failure, excitement and tragedy. Author Allen Schatz has done that and done it well.
For a good portion of Game 7: Dead Ball, protagonist Marshall Connors knows he’s in the middle of a life-or-death situation. He just doesn’t know whose or what to do about it.
Chosen to umpire the World Series as a surprise replacement for the crew chief who apparently suffered a heart attack, Connors must call balls and strikes on his boyhood friend Terry O’Hara, the ace of the Philadelphia Phillies pitching staff, and Terry’s former USC teammate Nik Sanchez, catcher for the Tampa Bay Rays.
Terry and Nik’s relationship was ruined long ago and now is defined only by animus. A third Trojan teammate, AJ Singer, had an affair with Terry’s mother, and when her husband discovered it, things got very ugly for all involved.
As the Series bounces between Florida and Pennsylvania, millions of fans watch the games on television unaware of the real drama swirling around Marshall Connors. Notes are surreptitiously delivered to him at home plate; meaningful looks are thrown by league security men, and an old-fashioned baseball “message” is delivered by catcher Sanchez – a fastball allowed to blast Marshall in the facemask.
Between games, though, Marshall manages to work in a little romance and tries to help his friend Thomas Hillsborough, an ex-CIA spook who is sort of a law-enforcement-stud-without-portfolio, figure out what’s going on.
You might expect a mystery involving a baseball umpire in the World Series to center on fixing games. Schatz happily has chosen to go in a less obvious direction.
Without giving away the plot, the crimes here include serial murder, kidnapping, extortion, and felony battery. Throw in the inter-generational adultery and some unpaid gambling debts, and you’ve got lots of reasons for people not to like each other.
Game 7 has a huge cast of characters – FBI agents, Major League Baseball officials, ball players, bad guys, innocent victims, and umpires among them. It is to Schatz’s credit as a writer that they’re reasonably easy to keep straight.
If you like baseball and thrillers, Game 7: Dead Ball is a must read. Even those who are only so-so on the national pastime but enjoy complicated plots with well-drawn characters will find Game 7 most satisfying.
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Former Roman Catholic priest Joe Novara has written the least angry memoir about leaving the priesthood you’re ever likely to read. If Novara is outraged by the church’s child-abuse scandal, he keeps it to himself. If he felt somehow betrayed by those who educated him in the holy mysteries for a dozen years, he doesn’t let on.
And yet Novara has written a most pleasant account of being sent to seminary in high school, remaining there through college and then going off among a select few for further theological training in Rome. Over the course of the narrative, he goes from being “totally engaged” with the church to having an “arm-length indifference” to it.
The tale doesn’t spool out in chronological sequence but is told via a collection of stories – sort of a “Then-there-was-the-time” approach, which works fine. He doesn’t say it straight out, but if I had to guess, I’d bet Novara at least occasionally wishes it had worked out differently. He wouldn’t give up his wife and child from his post-priesthood life, of course, but I think he wishes he were still in love with the church.
Married now and with a grown daughter, he takes a nostalgic tour of the churches in his former precincts. He runs into an old friend, an admirable aging priest who still puts effort into his homilies for a weekday evening liturgy for a congregation too small to justify use of the sanctuary. A nun who had been the principal of Joe’s high school still serves with the priest as “missionaries to Detroit’s East Side, urban-renewed wasteland.” She was now trying to establish and run an experimental high school.
As he leaves the church and his former mentors, Novara wonders whether he had “skipped out too soon – had left right after the bloom went off the romance of priestly work. Theirs has been a lifelong commitment. Mine was a kind of ‘living together’ arrangement – fine as long as it worked.”
Novara doesn’t ignore the priest child-abuse scandal. He writes of a seminary classmate who was great with kids. “Is my memory of Dave naïve? Would he have been the kind of priest to commit these awful crimes? All my instincts shout no. But I’ve learned I never can know for sure.” It’s one more thing that’s changed from the church he thought he once had committed himself to.
One reason Novara’s edges aren’t sharper may simply be the passage of time. He became a priest in the ‘60s, a tumultuous time in the world and an exciting time for the post-Vatican II Catholic Church. He served two years in a Detroit parish before making his exit.
After ordination and his Michigan homecoming, he began to learn the realities of being a priest, that it’s the ultimate 24/7 job, and you never get to leave the burdens at home. He also saw the relationship between priest and parishioner in a different light. “I thought I was going to be a personal trainer for a leaner, enlightened Catholicism,” he writes. “The majority of my congregation simply wanted a massage therapist.”
Whatever yearning for or curiosity about the road not taken, Novara ultimately is content with his choice to leave the church. “I so wanted to serve God and humanity on the macrocosmic, supernatural level. I came to find that atmosphere too rarefied. The scale of one on one friendship; the microcosm of my family has proved a more gratifying and seemingly successful strategy.”
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One of America’s first great labor struggles provides the setting for Death at Pullman, Frances McNamara’s historical novel about a murder in Pullman, Illinois, during the 1894 strike against the railway car company of that name.
The murder occurs during a strike/lockout in which the nascent labor movement is taking on the powerful manufacturer of luxury passenger cars. A young Pullman worker is found hanging in a shed with a sign around his neck proclaiming “Spy.” The discovery sets off the kind of finger-pointing and conspiracy theorizing that often follows anonymous violence occurring in the midst of bitter conflicts. Did the young man’s striking colleagues really discover that he was spying on them for the Pullman Company? Did George Pullman’s goons stage the murder to create suspicion and threaten the workers’ solidarity? Could the cause have been another, more personal reason?
Emily Cabot, a protégé of the great reformer Jane Addams, whose Hull House sits in a Chicago slum, is the book’s protagonist and voice. Robber baron George Pullman, who owns the town and controls the local police and the dreaded Pinkertons, is the villain of the tale. His counterpart is labor founding father Eugene V. Debs, leader of the American Railway Union. Pullman workers technically were not railway men, but the union sought to organize them and supported their strike.
George Pullman had built what appeared to be an idyllic town for his workers, and he was full of righteous indignation that mere working men, even women, would challenge his absolute right to set both the wages paid his employees and the rents charged for their housing.
Though McNamara – and probably any other right-thinking person – is sympathetic to the striking workers who were less interested in building a labor movement than in trying to survive and feed their families, she gives a balanced account of the economic realities Pullman faced. Orders for his cars had fallen sharply, dragging down his revenues with them.
Emily Cabot and Dr. Stephen Chapman have been sent to Pullman by Jane Addams to help feed and attend to the striking workers and their families. Emily has an on-again-off-again love interest in Chapman, and the book includes enough light romance to offset the brawny action.
As a murder mystery, Death at Pullman is serviceable. But it is its well-researched descriptions of people and places and its depiction of the ground-breaking struggle between management and labor that set it apart. A reader who would never pick up a history book on the subject will enjoy the story and consider the educational factor an added, even subliminal bonus.
I have not read the other books in McNamara’s Emily Cabot series, Death at Hull House and Death at the Fair, which also are set in the Chicago area of the late 19th century. But if they are on par with this one, their value proposition more than justifies inclusion on our Great Books Under $5 blog.