Saturday, December 27, 2014

How to be Both

Artists. It’s rare for me to finish reading a novel and have this thought: that was really something different. I had that experience when I finished Ali Smith’s novel titled, How to be Both. All artists require an audience, and it is through our eyes that the art is experienced. Smith offers readers the choice to select either Georgia or Del Cossa as the starting point, either today, or 500 years ago. These women are separated by time and united by art. We are drawn into their worlds and it is our observations that bring interpretation, understanding and insight. Smith’s prose is an art in and of itself. This inventive novel entertained me, and will likely delight those readers who enjoy creative literary writing. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase How to be Both from

41: A Portrait of My Father

Heart. It’s no ordinary thing to read a biography of a former president by the son of that person who is also a former president. This loving presentation of the life of George H. W. Bush titled, 41: A Portrait of My Father, is written by our 43rd president, George W. Bush. While I have a bundle of disagreements with the policies of both these presidents, I was moved by the deep affection and love of a son for his father whose life has been packed with significant accomplishments. The value and importance of family resonates throughout this book. A bonus in the book comes in the form of the reflections of George W. Bush about his own presidency when those comments fit what he had to say about his dad. Any reader interested in politics and public life will find a lot to enjoy from reading this book. I finished the book feeling better about both the subject and the author. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase 41 from

Expo 58

Spies. After I finished reading Jonathan Coe’s novel, Expo 58, I hoped that someone would present this entertaining and humorous story as a movie. This novel is a satire of the cold war, using the backdrop of the Brussels World’s Fair of 1958 as the setting. Protagonist Thomas Foley is chosen to oversee the Britannia pub at the British pavilion. He leaves his wife and baby at home for six months and spends lots of time in Belgium with one of the fair’s hostesses, Anneke. Coe presents spies that are the funniest I’ve encountered since Maxwell Smart. Foley becomes entangled in a scheme to prevent a defection to the Soviet Union, and his naiveté allows him to play the part as the spymasters intend. Readers who enjoy satire, spies, and this time period are those most likely to enjoy reading this very entertaining novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Expo 58 from

Deep Down Dark: The Untold Stories of 33 Men Buried in a Chilean Mine, and the Miracle That Set Them Free

Compelling. Any writer could have presented the story of the Chilean miners trapped for two months. Thanks to the fine writing of Hector Tobar in Deep Down Dark, a compelling story becomes compassionate and insightful. Tobar presents the individual miners highlighting their uniqueness and complexity, and brings readers into their lives above and underground. He presents just enough about the families and the mining company to provide a context for the situation. The core of the book presents the miners as they are trapped awaiting rescue. Most readers will find this account to be compelling reading. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Deep Down Dark from

On the Edge

Tantric. Good satire requires of readers both subject knowledge and an open mind. For readers who have experienced any aspect of the New Age movement, that subject knowledge should prepare one for the great wit of Edward St. Aubyn in his novel titled, On the Edge. The Esalen environment that St. Aubyn skewers in this novel delighted me, perhaps as close as I’ll ever come to a tantric experience. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase On the Edge from

Wolf in White Van

Creativity. I started reading songwriter John Darnielle’s novel, Wolf in White Van, with low expectations. After a dozen or so pages, I was hooked. Darnielle explores themes of isolation and creativity, and the ways in which fantasy can reward and punish. The power of imagination is such a force in life, and Darnielle presents a protagonist whose vivid imagination may well have saved his life. Readers who can become comfortable with an unusual novel are those most likely to enjoy this one. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Wolf in White Van from

The Girl Next Door

Wrinklies. The elderly characters in this novel annoyed the hell out of me. Now that I’ve dissed the wrinklies and gotten that out of my system, I can offer a few comments about Ruth Rendell’s novel titled, The Girl Next Door. We learn of a murder at the beginning of the book, so there is no mystery as to who did it. The plot involves the cast of characters decades later and their lives and connections to that past event and to each other. Readers who like crime fiction that explores psychological insight are those most likely to enjoy reading this novel. I struggled through to the end, finding the development of each character a bit tedious, and I caught myself not caring a wit about any of them. Rating: Three-star (It’s ok) Click here to purchase The Girl Next Door from

The Burning Room

Redemption. The latest Harry Bosch novel by Michael Connelly is titled, The Burning Room. While detective Bosch is facing retirement, and can seem to be moving toward mellowness and acceptance, his work ethic never flags. His new partner, rookie detective Lucy Soto, matches him hour for hour, and their relationship develops well in this novel. One theme of the novel is redemption, and the plot leads toward an ending that addresses the consequences of the actions that played out in this installment. Fans of the series will find both an old Harry and a new one in this novel. I was entertained and delighted by this novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Burning Room from

Fire Shut Up in My Bones

Reckoning. A writer chooses what to include or exclude in a memoir and that choice can communicate a lot to readers. New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow chose candor for his memoir titled, Fire Shut Up in My Bones. He chose to bring up both child abuse and college fraternity hazing and wrote about those experiences with clarity. His comfort with this reckoning made me as a reader pay attention to this memoir. His writing is often lyrical, and it’s so clear how many different paths he could have taken. Any reader who enjoys fine writing will likely find satisfaction from this memoir. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Fire Shut Up in My Bones from

Fourth of July Creek

Survival. Thanks to Smith Henderson’s fine writing, especially his character development, I totally enjoyed his debut novel titled, Fourth of July Creek. Protagonist Pete Snow is a rural social worker in Montana. Although his personal and family situation is packed with problems, Pete cares deeply for the troubles of his clients who struggle to survive within the system or isolated from it. Pete adds to his own difficulties when he chooses his clients’ needs over those of his family. The struggle for survival fills a lot of this plot, and I was impressed by how Henderson never came close to relieving the tension at play among so many of the characters. Readers who appreciate finely written literary fiction are those most likely to enjoy reading this novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Fourth of July Creek from

Marry Me

Funny. I laughed throughout the witty new book by Dan Rhodes titled, Marry Me. In the course of 79 short and shorter stories, Rhodes riffs on marital relationships from good times to bad and worse. Newlyweds might find the content a bit off putting, but anyone married for at least five years, especially those who are happily married, will find many pages of finely written wit. Those who are comfortably divorced will also find a lot of funny writing throughout these stories. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Marry Me from

Monday, December 15, 2014

Windigo Island

Evil. The latest Cork O'Connor mystery by William Kent Krueger is titled, Windigo Island. Fans of the series will find many reprised characters along with a satisfying plot. The subject of the novel involves sex trafficking of Native American women, and Cork’s daughter, Jenny, plays a major role in battling the evil forces at play in this novel. Krueger presents evil in ways that will cause shivers among most readers, especially on dark and stormy nights. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Windigo Island from

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption

Broken. Any reader with skepticism about how broken the criminal justice system really is should read Bryan Stevenson’s well-written book about his decades working at the Equal Justice Initiative titled, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. Stevenson presents cases of the wrongly convicted, and the efforts to obtain justice. At the center of the book is the story of Walter McMillian, convicted as a young man of a murder he didn’t commit. There’s both sadness and hope on these pages, and I finished the book feeling good that lawyers like Stevenson are working hard for justice. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Just Mercy from

How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens

Quick. Science journalist Benedict Carey offers interested readers an engaging way of coming up to speed quickly with the latest research in brain science in his book titled, How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens. While “surprising” is in the subtitle, I found that my learning style was reinforced by what I read in this book, and much of the research he noted I’ve run across from other sources. General readers are those most likely to learn something new and useful from this interesting book. Rating: Three-star (It’s ok) Click here to purchase How We Learn from

Love and Treasure

Restoration. Readers looking for all the elements of a fine novel should consider reading Love and Treasure by Ayelet Waldman. I had not heard of the Hungarian Gold Train until I read this novel. Packed with the stolen possessions of Jews sent to concentration camps, Waldman draws one object from this train, a pendant, and uses its survival as a contrast to the death of all the owners of objects like it. The plot moves forward and backward in time as an effort is made to restore the pendant to the rightful owner. Along the way, we are treated to great prose and a view on psychoanalysis that added a lot to the novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Love and Treasure from

Dick Francis's Damage

Sabotage. The latest novel by Felix Francis in the horseracing series started by his father is titled, Dick Francis’s Damage. Protagonist Jeff Hinkley is an undercover investigator for the British Horseracing Authority. He ends up taking actions way above his pay grade to get to the bottom of events that have been taking place to sabotage racing and intended to undermine confidence in its ruling body. The exposition starts with fast-paced action, then relaxes to a slow unraveling of the mystery, and then moves to a fast-paced resolution. Fans of the series are those most likely to enjoy this installment. Rating: Three-star (It’s ok) Click here to purchase Dick Francis’s Damage from

Our Great Big American God: A Short History of Our Ever-Growing Deity

Evolution. If you scratch your head every time you hear a reference to the United States as a Christian nation, you may want to read Matthew Paul Turner’s short book on Christianity in America titled, Our Great Big American God: A Short History of Our Ever-Growing Deity. Turner presents this history from a foundation of research, and relates the story with both humor and sarcasm. That means he is likely to offend some readers, including those American believers from faiths outside Christianity. I found the book interesting both for what he includes and for what he excludes. Rating: Three-star (It’s ok) Click here to purchase Our Great Big American God from

Nora Webster

Grief. The depth of character in the title character of Colm Toibin’s novel, Nora Webster, develops from the first page of the novel and continues to the end. Using atmospheric descriptive language, Toibin presents Nora and her life as she grieves the death of her husband. I found that the more closely I read and absorbed Toibin’s choice of words, the more deeply I came to understand Nora and her complexity. The motif about music developed in a similar deliberate way: leading toward resolution and harmony. Those readers who enjoy finely written literary fiction are those most likely to appreciate this novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Nora Webster from

Mermaids in Paradise

Satire. Lydia Millet’s novel, Mermaids in Paradise, offers readers who love satire the hilarious story of a honeymoon. Narrator Deb met her husband, Chip, on a speed date and for so many reasons they seem made for each other. The contrasts in their personalities provide abundant material for Millet’s narrative and for her humorous and quirky viewpoint on contemporary behavior. After Deb and Chip discovery mermaids Millet delivers page after page of satire with sharp wit and finely written prose. I laughed often while reading this novel, and was thoroughly entertained. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Mermaids in Paradise from

Friday, December 5, 2014

See You in Paradise

Odd. Readers who are comfortable with the quirky and odd are those most likely to enjoy reading the fourteen stories in the new collection by J. Robert Lennon titled, See You in Paradise. I found some of the stories funny enough to laugh out loud. Lennon can draw a thin line between pleasure and pain and drift back and forth across the line over the course of a few pages. The relationships that Lennon presents are troubled ones, and he draws us into lives that are at once strange and familiar. Paradise isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, and zombies can be more alive than the living. Rating: Three-star (It’s ok) Click here to purchase See You in Paradise from


Journal. Words matter. In Meg Wolitzer’s novel, Belzhar, the adolescents at The Wooden Barn, a Vermont boarding school for troubled kids, who have been selected for the Special Topics in English class learn quickly how much words matter. They are required to write in special journals for this class that does close reading of Sylvia Plath. The journal writing transports the students to a place they named “Belzhar,” a take on the famous Plath book. While this may be categorized as a young adult novel, that distinction may not mean much to those readers who appreciate finely written prose. I was entertained and delighted by this novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Belzhar from


Electricity. For those readers who most enjoy fiction that presents a well-told story, the master storyteller Stephen King’s novel, Revival, will be just the right book to read over the course of a few cold winter nights. Two relationships weave through the narrative: the bond between Jamie and Charlie and the tension between religion and science. We meet Jamie as a boy and Charlie as the new minister in town. James becomes a musician and drug addict while the reverend, always interested in harnessing the power of electricity, uses his skills as a means to understanding the afterlife. I was thoroughly entertained by this story and by the skill with which King drew me in. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Revival from

The Murder of Harriet Krohn

Mind. Inspector Konrad Sejer doesn’t appear until more than halfway through the novel by Karin Fossum titled, The Murder of Harriet Krohn. Instead, protagonist and criminal Charlo Torp draws readers into his world and into his mind. By the time we meet his daughter, Julia, we understand how important she is to Charlo, and how he would do anything for her. All the setup narrative about the mental state of Charlo provides the context for Sejer to solve the case. Readers who like psychological novels will be delighted by this one. Those readers of the series who expect a more traditional crime procedural may be surprised by this installment. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Murder of Harriet Krohn from

Thunderstruck and Other Stories

Losses. We can seem so different from other people and then something happens that pierces us and we recognize ourselves as having so much in common with others. In the collection of nine short stories by Elizabeth McCracken titled Thunderstruck, the characters at first can seem so different: their losses are not our losses, their pain and grief are not our pain. Somehow McCracken finds the universal experience in the human behavior of characters who upon second or third reflection are just like us. The finest fiction accomplishes this deft trick: using some different reality from our own to enliven the world in which we live and then lead us to deeper love and understanding. McCracken’s writing in each story accomplished this feat, and those readers who appreciate fine writing will enjoy this collection. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Thunderstruck from

The Dog

Adrift. I surrendered myself to Joseph O’Neill’s finely-crafted witty prose in his novel titled, The Dog. The unnamed narrator is adrift in contemporary life and alert to his predicament. He’s living in Dubai, working for a superrich family handling business affairs. O’Neill’s riff on class relations and the unspoken reactions employees have to the demands of unreasonable bosses were among the finest parts of the novel. Readers who are comfortable with meandering, being as adrift as the narrator, while enjoying finely written prose are those most likely to savor this novel. Rating: Three-star (It’s ok) Click here to purchase The Dog from