Tuesday, May 26, 2015

The Chidren's Crusade

Taut. Hundreds of novels will be published this year that feature the complicated lives of families. None is likely to be as finely written as Ann Packer’s The Children’s Crusade. Packer presents the Blair family from the 1950s to the present. The father of the family, Bill Blair, is a pediatrician. His wife, Penny, is an artist. Their four children are named Robert, Rebecca, Ryan and James. By the selection of name, you can guess how well James fits in with the others. As in many families, the story revolves around the mother, and Penny is not the storybook Mom of the 1950s. She chooses her art over giving her children what they need. What Packer does so well is create this interesting and complex character in Penny, and fleshes out the impact of Penny’s choices on each member of the family over six decades. Packer’s prose can delight close readers, no matter what the content. The prose here describes the place and time so perfectly that the development of characters in their multiple settings seems to flow with great ease. Packer’s insight into these characters made me love reading this novel. Each unique character, formed by life experience, behaves in ways that are understandable and totally recognizable. Fans who revel in finely written literary fiction are those most likely to enjoy reading this novel. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase The Children’s Crusade from amazon.com.

Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town

Assault. Rape is not a subject that many readers will place at the top of one’s reading list. Thanks to Jon Krakauer’s finely written book titled, Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town, many people will read and think about this important topic. No matter what you think you know about sexual assault, chances are high that you will learn something new from reading this book. Krakauer offers great insight into the reasons for the reactions of victims, especially those who had been drinking, and whose assault came from someone known to the victim. Any reader with a child heading to or on a college campus will benefit from reading this book and talking about the cases presented. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Missoula from amazon.com.

Dealing with China: An Insider Unmasks the New Economic Superpower

Cooperation. Readers interested in China will discover a privileged and unique perspective in Hank Paulson’s book titled, Dealing with China: An Insider Unmasks the New Economic Superpower. Paulson relates his personal experience with China and its leaders from three phases of his career: while at Goldman Sachs; when he was U.S. Secretary of the Treasury, and in his current role at the Paulson Institute dealing with environmental issues. Paulson relates the success that has been and that can be achieved through cooperation with China, based on understanding the needs and interests of the country and its leaders. While some of the boosterism of Goldman can be distracting, and the self-congratulatory tone of the decisions Paulson made can be biased, the book shares insight and experience that is well worth considering by any reader interested in this subject. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Dealing with China from amazon.com.

The Whites

Burdens. A New York City police detective doesn’t have the kind of 9-5 work that allows the job to be left behind at the office every day. Most civilians will never understand or appreciate the daily burdens that these public servants carry with them. Richard Price, writing as Harry Brandt, presents a view of the burdens of this life in a finely written novel titled, The Whites. The title refers to Moby Dick and the way in which a detective may become obsessed by a criminal who evaded justice. These Ahabs of the police force are the central characters of the novel, especially protagonist Billy Graves, whose burdens are complicated and heavy. Price masters so many elements of good writing in this novel: deep characters, great dialogue, an engaging plot, and within all of this, a wise understanding of human nature. I enjoyed every minute I spent reading this book. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase The Whites from amazon.com.

Thursday, May 21, 2015


Depths. I was mesmerized by the words, pictures and story in David Vann’s novel titled, Aquarium. On one level, this is a coming of age story in which the protagonist, twelve year old Caitlin, finds escape and joy from her time at the Seattle aquarium. On another level, this is a close examination of love and forgiveness, and what it takes for those of us broken by what has happened in our lives to heal. On another level, the novel draws readers to examine the beauty that lies beneath the surface of our lives. The emotional intensity in the plot and the dialogue are never restrained, and the rawness of life is exposed for all to see. This novel is a story of redemption. Vann does more in fewer than three hundred pages than most writers achieve in many books over a lifetime. Any reader who enjoys literary fiction should love this finely written novel. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase Aquarium from amazon.com.

Days of Rage: America's Radical Underground, the FBI, and the Forgotten Age of Revolutionary Violence

Comprehensive. Readers can count on Brian Burrough to be thorough when he tackles a topic, and in his book titled, Days of Rage: America's Radical Underground, the FBI, and the Forgotten Age of Revolutionary Violence, he uses over six hundred pages to present the results of many years of immersion in the homegrown terrorism that spread across America during the 1970s. In addition to reams of archival material, his interviews with individuals who have not spoken to others about the actions of that period came as a result of the years Burrough spent building trust. Whether groups like the Student Nonviolence Coordinating Commmittee, Students for a Democratic Society, Weatherman, FALN and the Symbionese Liberation Army are familiar to you or not, by reading this book you will learn about something that happened in the United States a few decades ago that is rarely mentioned today. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Days of Rage from amazon.com.

Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania

Momentum. Readers who hated history in school will come to love the way history can be presented after reading Erik Larson’s fine book titled, Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania. Most of us know that the Lusitania was sunk by a German u-boat during the early months of World War I. Larson sets the stage for that event by putting it in context, and presenting an array of characters including the captains of both vessels, passengers, President Woodrow Wilson, and others. It’s the detail of the context that kept me turning pages in this finely written book. Larson’s research and his lively style of presenting it gave me hours of reading pleasure. Any reader interested in this period will find a lot to enjoy and learn from this book. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Dead Wake from amazon.com.

World Gone By

Payback. The third novel in Dennis Lehane’s Joe Coughlin series is the shortest, and in my opinion, the best. World Gone By completes the story of the Coughlins and their lives of crime in Boston and Florida. While the novel stands well on its own in character development and plot, many readers will appreciate the story even more when read after the earlier two novels. No living American writer beats Lehane at describing criminal life with cogent insight into morality, family, loyalty, and the consequences of one’s actions. This is a novel about payback, and the resolution of the drama of this series seemed perfect to me. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase World Gone By from amazon.com.

The Children Return

Gratitude. Fans of the Bruno, Chief of Police, series by Martin Walker will be delighted by the seventh installment titled, The Children Return. Struggles of the past and present come home to Saint Denis in the Dordogne. An autistic boy named Sami has returned home to Saint Denis after being forced by Islamic extremists to become a terrorist bomb maker in Afghanistan. Jihadists arrive in Saint Denis to kill Sami who had escaped from them. Bruno needs to protect Sami and his family as well as the town. The kindness of farmers in Saint Denis during World War II wins the gratitude of a Jewish woman who was welcomed there as a child. Bruno and the town present her with a plan of how they would benefit from her philanthropy. As with the earlier novels in the series, Walker does a great job with character development, plot momentum, and bringing the location to a reader’s vivid awareness. The food can almost be tasted. Readers who like crime fiction as well as fans of the series are those most likely to enjoy this novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Children Return from amazon.com.

Where You Go Is Not Who You'll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania

Calming. The college admissions process can lead to frustration, anxiety, and crushed hopes. Frank Bruni advises parents and students to relax about all this in a book titled with a summary that describes his message succinctly: Where You Go Is Not Who You'll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania. In a little more than 200 pages, Bruni tells his own story along with others to support his perspective. One’s value doesn’t come from the school one attends. Achievement and success may not correlate with the ratings of a school. So Bruni advises everybody to calm down, reduce the pressure and use the experience at any college to learn, grow and mature. I was delighted by his examples of U.S. Presidents, CEOs and award-winning scientists who did not attend prominent universities. If that’s how we measure success, the top rated universities may not lead one to those positions. Relax. Any reader with trepidation about the college admissions process will love reading this book. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Where You Go from amazon.com.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

The Dream Lover

Choices. Elizabeth Berg tackles historical fiction with her latest novel titled, The Dream Lover, structured as a memoir by George Sand, Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dupin. Much of the novel chronicles romantic liaisons, which will please those Berg readers who expect pages filled with relationship issues. Berg adopts a writing style that mimics the writing of George Sand, and that choice led to a narrative that was often tedious to read. The choices of memoir and the style of Sand had other consequences. Readers are left with Sand’s own view of her life, and there may have been richer material from Sand’s critics and admirers. Berg’s choices also lead toward a comparison of her prose with Sand’s, and for those readers familiar with both, Sand is likely to be viewed more favorably. All that said, I was entertained by reading this novel. Readers who love Berg’s writing are those most likely to enjoy this novel. Rating: Three-star (It’s ok) Click here to purchase The Dream Lover from amazon.com.

Hissing Cousins: The Untold Story of Eleanor Roosevelt and Alice Roosevelt Longworth

Family. Readers who enjoy twentieth century American history are those most likely to enjoy an engaging book by Marc Peyser and Timothy Dwyer titled, Hissing Cousins: The Untold Story of Eleanor Roosevelt and Alice Roosevelt Longworth. Two branches of the Roosevelt family dominated political life in the early twentieth century. Teddy Roosevelt led the Sagamore Hill branch and Franklin Delano Roosevelt of the Hyde Park branch dominated during the Depression and World War II. Eleanor was the wife of FDR, and also a cousin. Alice was TR’s daughter. Peyser and Dwyer roam through the politics, the family life and the choices made by these two strong and complicated women. While Alice is best known for her clever wit and Eleanor for her public service, there’s a lot more to both of them, and the authors cover them in ways what were interesting and engaging. The catchy title calls attention to their differences, while the narrative draws readers into their similarities and to their shared passion for life in the public arena. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Hissing Cousins from amazon.com.

A History of Loneliness

Complicit. Sadness and melancholy are the highpoints in John Boyne’s finely written novel titled, A History of Loneliness, that takes on the topic of child abuse by Irish priests. Protagonist Odran Yates is an Irish priest who was not an abuser, but he was close by and oblivious as it was done under his nose, by a priest friend and classmate. Boyne moves back and forth in time as he constructs Yates’ growing awareness of his own complicity in what happened over decades. Boyne’s prose will please those readers who enjoy literary fiction. His sensitivity to the victims of abuse constrains the novel in all the right ways. The essential loneliness in the lives of celibate priests pervades the narrative and creates the gloomy atmosphere in which the plot develops. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase A History of Loneliness from amazon.com.


Island. Sixty-nine-year-old Moses Sweetland lives on an island off Newfoundland named Sweetland by his ancestors who settled there. In Michael Crummey’s finely written novel, Sweetland, readers are drawn into this person and this place. The tension in the novel comes from the decision by the government to pay to relocate the remaining residents of the slowly dying island, provided all agree. Moses and one other person have not agreed, creating conflict with their neighbors. The themes of community and isolation are presented, along with the depth of this fully formed character who reflects on his life in ways that will provide a complete picture of a complicated person who has lived a hard life, and who is willing to stand alone. Readers who enjoy well-written literary fiction are those who are most likely to be entertained by this novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Sweetland from amazon.com.

The Stranger

Vulnerability. Harlan Coben presents three elements in his novel, The Stranger, which will satisfy many readers. His plot grabbed my attention quickly, and the momentum continued to the end, including a handful of twists that were delightful. His characters, especially protagonist Adam Price, face situations that are believable, and their behavior always seems realistic to how any of us might act. Finally, Coben’s exploration of the vulnerability present in all relationships came across as reflective, thoughtful and insightful. Sometimes all it takes to create doubt is the whisper of a question or a small statement that can unravel the binds that unite us with others. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Stranger from amazon.com.