...
,,,
Highly recommended books in boldface.
MATT'S FAVORITE
 "NEW" BOOKS     
        OF 2005:

1.  An Unpardonable Crime
   Andrew Taylor
2.  Hitler's Peace    
   Philip Kerr
3.  1759  Frank McLynn
4.  Some Danger Included
   Will Thomas
5.  Benjamin Franklin:
   An American Life
  Walter Isaacson

   Comments are in the
        list at right.
Click here to read
2006 reviews
Europe Central by William T. Vollman is the last book I read in 2005 and the most ambitious book I'll comment on this year.  Don't plan to
pick this one up and breeze through it.  And Czechoslovakia vanishes like a handful of books flying into flames by night.  Children in England
and France begin trying on gas masks in anticipation of the sleepwalker's marching columns is fairly representative of the denseness of this
752 page doorstop.  The book touches on the lives of enough  real people in Middle Europe between 1914 and 1962 to fill several seasons
on the History Channel.   The author claims his work is "historical fiction"-- a genre that seems to be roaming further from the historical and
closer to the fiction, and is therefore starting to repel me.  Generally speaking, the more "true" he is to characters in the book, the more
interesting they are and the more readable the book is.  For whatever reason, his German characters are more interesting than his Russian
characters.  I think it's because he's less speculative.  For example, the least interesting parts of the book are the dozens and dozens of
pages devoted to the imagined sex life of Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich.  Dure to the limitations of the historical fiction genre, it's
hard to say that you will learn anything from reading this book--except possibly how myths are made.  (December 2005)

A Year in the Merde by Stephen Clarke  The oddest thing happened after I finished reading this book.  I discovered that it was fiction.  I felt
very let down.  The author includes pages and pages of minutiae about the details of being a Brit working in Paris at the outset of the Gulf
War that isn't very interesting.  I thought that stuff that mundane must have actually happened to someone.  But no.  If the story had been true,
I would have recommended it to you, but as fiction, c'est petit fromage.  (October 2005)

1759 by Frank McLynn  The subtitle of the book is The Year the British Became Masters of the World, and it explores various military actions
in America, Germany, India and Portugal that helped to put Britain on the map, empire-wise.  More interestingly to me, the author does a
wonderful job of setting these exploits in their social, political and cultural contexts--a device that I wish David McCullough had considered in
1776 (see below).  It's a wonderful book.  (September 2005)

1776 by David McCullough   if you've managed to avoid all of those other books about the 18th century that have been so darned popular
lately (for examples, see the list below), here's one that someone with even the briefest attention span could handle.  The book isn't nearly
as engrossing as 1759, and it tells a surprisingly narrow story of the military exploits of George Washington and his army.  As an American,
I'm partial to the year 1776, but as a reader, I have to say, "1776, you're no 1759."  (September 2005)

Pride of Carthage by David Durham   Hannibal Barca is best known for bringing elephants across the Alps, but little else is known of his life.  
This book is Mr. Durham's effort to fill in some of the gaps.  The book falls prey to the currently popular device of telling the lives of great
people by observing them through the eyes of the "little people".  Unfortunately, these little people are little indeed--and they don't really
provide much enlightenment about Hannibal and his family.  Skip it.

Benjamin Franklin: An American Life by Walter Isaacson.  I've not been a big fan of Mr. Isaacson's work at Time, where he has served as
editor, but I must say that I do like his bio of Ben Franklin--who seems to be making a comeback of sorts.  The book is very readable and
does a great job of bringing Franklin to life.  You have to like a bio of a Founding Father which uses the word "sassy" three times in the first
35 pages.

Alexander the Great by Paul Cartledge  Professor Cartledge claims to have been teaching Oxbridge students the story of Alexander for
twenty years.  I don't doubt him--but then again, I'm rather pleased not to have been one of his students.  The trouble that everyone has in
telling the tale of Alexander is that so little is known about him.  Biographies are written based on interpretations a few pages written by
Plutarch, who himself lived over 300 years  after Alexander.  When Professor Cartledge does have a juicy tidbit to transmit, he's not shy about
repeating it again and again.  (Happily) unlike other recent biographies, this one offers no psycho-sexual underpinnings for the life of
Alexander.  As a matter of fact, it offers up precious few underpinnings at all.  (August 2005)

The Romanov Prophecy by Steven Berry certainly sounds like something written by Robert Ludlum, but its obvious influence is The DaVinci
Code.  It concerns the tale of a black attorney from Atlanta who meets an acrobat from the Moscow Circus, and together, they solve the riddle
of the last of the Romanovs.  (I started to say that you can't make this stuff up, but obviously, someone did.)  Mr. Berry plays much too fast and
loose with the facts of the Romanov case for this to be entirely satisfying, but he does have a way with words, and you enjoy the ride while it
lasts.  (August 2005)

Radio Activity  by Bill Fitzhugh  is actually the book that preceded Highway 61 Resurfaced below.  This one is not as polished as the second
tale of the Mississippi disc jockey who plays primo classic rock and solves crimes on the side.  Still, as a tale of "white trash walking", it's not
bad.  (July 2005)

Fluke by Christopher Moore  Mr Moore makes his living in the satire game.  Some times it's good; some times it's over the top.  This one is
over the top.  (July 2005)

The Stupidest Angel by Christopher Moore  has rather more zombies than I usually like in my Christmas fantasies.  The first 150 pages or
so about the run-up to Christmas in a small coastal California tourist town are hilarious.  After that, the eponymous stupid angel (thinking
that he's bringing Santa back to life) raises a cemetery full of zombies from the dead, and they attack a church full of people on Christmas
Day.  It's downhill from there.  (July 2005)

Hitler's Peace  by Philip Kerr is a fascinating story that's just crazy enough to be true (and has just enough facts to back it up) about the
Tehran Conference of the Big Three (Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin) in 1943, and how Hitler might have changed the entire outcome of
World War II.   The story is told by a suave Ivy Leaguer who seduces women on three continents before saving the day at the end.  Check it
out.  (July 2005)

A Salty Piece of Land  by Jimmy Buffett   This book was a birthday present last year, but I've been putting off reading it because I was afraid it
would be as bad as his first novel, Where is Joe Merchant?  Well, it is and it isn't.  It is as bad, in that it caters to parrotheads who are willing
to go along with his inside jokes and allusions to songs he's written ("When I arrive in that one particular harbor...").  The characters are
much bigger than this story requires. (The owner of the sloop who mentors him isn't just 101 years old, she was born the night the Maine
blew up in Havana harbor.  The beautiful French woman who is skinny dipping in the lagoon is also an heiress--AND a great cook.  You get
the idea.)  But at the end of the story, darn it if you don't get a little bit sentimental.  It's not terrible.   (July 2005)

Divided Kingdom by Rupert Thomson  as opposed to United Kingdom.  At some point in the near future, the leaders of the UK decide that the
country is a mess and that the only way to save it is to divide it into four different countries.  Each country will house everyone who has
particular personality traits.  The optimistic "people-people" will live in the red country; aggressive people in the yellow; lachrymose in the
blue; and fatalistic in the green.  Yes, I know it sounds a lot like Emergentics run amok.  It's a great idea for a book.  The great set-up would
make George Orwell smile.  Unfortunately, the characters take over mid-way and the book becomes a lot less interesting.  But it's worth a
look, so check it out.  (July 2005)

Highway 61 Resurfaced by Bill Fitzhugh.   For the past ten years or so, I've been wondering what effect the casino industry would have on the
literature of the State of Mississippi.  Based on the writings of Mr. Fitzhugh, Elmore Leonard and others, not much.  The characters are still as
quirky as ever--they just have more interesting places to go and display their ignorance.  Exhibit A is this book by Mr. Fitzhugh which is the
ripping tale of Rick Shannon, a disc jockey with a passion for classic rock and a penchant for solving crimes.  In his travels, he meets most
standard Mississippi Delta stereotypes.  Check it out.  (July 2005)

The Great Improvisation by Stacy Schiff    The title of this book refers to the diplomatic mission of Benjamin Franklin to Paris during the
American Revolution. What made his mission improvisational (and what makes the book interesting) is that there was no such thing as the
United States of America when  Mr. Franklin crossed the ocean to seek French recognition and support for it in 1775.  Mr. Franklin succeeded
because he was at the time one of the most famous men in the world.  He had access to the high and mighty at the court of Louis XVI.  
Without that access (and the enthusiasm on the part of the French for making the British look bad any way they could), there might be no
United States of America today.  (July 2005)

The Crimson Petal and The White   I found this book sitting in a pile of trash when was taking out the garbage one night.  That should have
been a sign.  People and Entertainment Weekly (according to the book's cover) have named this book the "Book of the Year".  If you're looking
for a good book to use a reference manual to explain to your kids all of the terms they heard during the Clinton impeachment, this is the book
for you.  For the rest of us, it's just a dark, depressing and soulless tale of prostitution in Victorian London.  (July 2005)

Fatal Passage:  The True Story of John Rae, the Arctic Hero That Time Forgot   Ken McCoogan loves his titles, but he's also enamoured
with life along the Hudson Bay in the 19th century.  John Rae was a Scotsman, who became known as the greatest snowshoer of all-time.  
(I'm not making this up.)  This book tells the story of his treks around Hudson Bay and the Arctic Circle so well that at no time do you think to
yourself, "I think I might like to try that...."  (June 2005)

Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow provides an insightful look into the life of America's least understood Founding Father.  This book pulls
off the neat trick of explaining the extent of the vanity, follies and downright persnickity-ness of our founders, while still acknowledging that
they were also quite remarkable and able to achieve something unheard of in the history of the world.  Perhaps the most extreme of the
founders in all of these regards was Hamilton, and Mr. Chernow does a wonderful job of bringing him to life.  You'll never look at a ten-dollar
bill (or Thomas Jefferson) quite the same way again.  (June 2005)

Skeletons on the Zahara  by Dean King.  Remember the movie that came out a while back about the Americans who went to the Sahara to
find the remains of a Civil War vessel that ran aground there?  As it turns out, lots of American vessels shipwrecked on the coast of Africa in
the early nineteenth century.  This is the story of the most famous of them, the Commerce, which ran aground in 1815.  I actually had the
pleasure of meeting Mr. King in New Orleans in March, and he tells a compelling story. Mostly, anyway.  The beginning and end of the book
are great.  Unfortunately, there's about a 150-page Sahara-like wasteland in the middle where he describes the travails of the crew in
mind-numbing detail.  Skin is parched.  Snails are eaten.  Locals are not hospitable.  Lives are degraded.  The usual stuff.  (May 2005)

A Matter of Character: Inside the White House of George W. Bush   by Ron Kessler  If you want to continue to believe that your President
has horns and a tail, stick with Katie Couric and Air America.  If you're looking for a more balanced view, this may be the book for you.  Mr.
Kessler is a former writer for the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal, and also wrote a book about Bush 41 called A Matter of
Character.  This book came out in 2004, but frankly, I was in "political overload" last year, and didn't want to have to deal with any more than
was necessary.  (May 2005)

The Italian Secretary   by Caleb Carr  I was really looking forward to this new book by the author of The Alienist, so much so that I actually
pre-ordered it from Amazaon.com before its publication.  Che disillusione.  This story, such as it is, is based on the combined lore of Mary,
Queen of Scots and Sherlock Holmes might better be titled, The Mystery of the Missing Plot.  A clue to that mystery is provided in an afterword
which is explains that the book resulted in a request that Mr. Carr write a short story based on Holmesian lore.  Mr. Carr kept is end of the
bargain: He wrote a 248-page short story.  For a much better Victorian era mystery, check out the last book on this list.  (April 2005)

Scribbling the Cat  by Alexandra Fuller  (Note:  "Scribbling" is southern African slang for "killing".  The title relates to the adage about
curiosity--although there was one rather obnoxious cat that I'm sure Ms. Fuller wouldn't have minded scribbling.)  This is a book I've been
looking forward to since I read her first book, Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight.  It's a worthy successor, although it is not as raw and
gut-wrenching, it is compelling.  The premise seems a bit contrived, but Ms. Fuller, a white African-American, can't be blamed for trying to tell
the story of people in a truly unfortunate part of the world.  (Note to author:  The neighbors are still awaiting a sequel to the Hector the Wonder
Dog.  Well???)  (April 2005)

An Unpardonable Crime is, as they say, a regular page-turner.  Set in London in the early 1800's, it speculates on--among other things--the
relationship between 12-year-old Edgar Allen Poe and his estranged father.  Andrew Taylor has done a masterful job of capturing the feel
and pace of the time.  (The protagonist seldom makes a move before eating and relieving himself.)  I enjoyed it thoroughly, and I don't even
regret that it kept me up until 4:00 one morning.  Well done.  (March 2005)

Paradise of Cities  seems to be the last gasp from an author who has already written five or six books about Venice and is looking for
another way to recycle his material.  It's about ten chapters--each focusing on a different visitor to the city in the 1800's.  Napoleon, Byron and
Henry James are the most interesting.  (After reading a rather exhausting inventory of Byron's lovers from he period, I found myself agreeing
with a book publicist from the late 1800's who handled a book by one of the writer's former amours.  The book was not successful, and
apparently his efforts on behalf of it were frustrating.  He said, "I never realized before today how boring Byron could be." (February 2005)

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is the very long title of a very short book about a very uninteresting crime perpetrated by a
mildly interesting "differently abled" young boy with very real domestic issues.  He's a math savant, but his mental illness has driven his
parents apart.  With prejudice, apparently.  His father tells him that his mother is dead, when in fact, she is merely living in the suburbs.  The
book is mostly about what happens when the boy discovers her existence and goes to look for her.  I have to say that the book really isn't "my
kind of thing", but apparently, lots of other people have liked it.  (January 2005)

Ghosts of Vesuvius   This is a new book with a million facts at its fingertips--none of them of interest to any but the most scientific among us
who need to know exactly how many tenths of a second it takes for a volcanic eruption cloud to descend and kill a man.  (It's not many,)  The
book also provides thoughtful insights into the manner in which victims die.  The first thing that happens is that their teeth explode.  After that
it takes two tenths of a second for the rest of the body to be desiccated.  It's that kind of book.  (January 2005)

The Plot Against America I'm sure that Phillip Roth's novel is supposed to be some sort of metaphor for the Bush Administration (It's being
reviewed that way.)  If that is indeed the case, it's a very ham-handed allegory.  If the book, however, is to be taken straightforwardly and as
the "semi-autobiographical" novel that the author says that it is, it's even more pork-encrusted.  Since the events didn't really happen (except
for that fact that there might have been a young man named Phillip Roth growing up in New Jersey), the claims are specious at best.  Roth
has an interesting idea for a book examining what might have happened in a Lindbergh administration, but grafting such an idea on to the
detritus of his own youth is odd at best.  (January 2005)

Some Danger Included   is a charming mystery by WIll Thomas, a man (I guess.  These days....) whose work I will try to seek out in the
future.  SDI concerns a tender, young, poor, recently-widowed Oxonian taken into employ by London's foremost--and most eclectic late-19th
century private investigator.  While I'm not crazy about the choice of villains in the piece, the pace, detail, and general ambiance of the work
make the reading of it most pleasurable indeed.  (January 2005)
2005 BOOK COMMENTS