Monday, October 26, 2015


Olympic. Twenty outstanding short stories are assembled in a collection titled, Honeydew, by Edith Pearlman. Were I commenting on an Olympic gymnastic performance, I would call attention to the ways in which Pearlman nails every landing. She has great endings to each of these stories, often in the form of a cunning twist. If that were the only skill presented, that would be enough to bring a reader pleasure. Her main achievement, in my view, is the skill with which she presents aspects of human nature with such precision that I was moved by her compassion and insight into the ordinary and its profound beauty and essential liveliness. There’s an authenticity in these stories that will reward most readers with insight and understanding about people like us. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase Honeydew from

The Billion Dollar Spy: A True Story of Cold War Espionage and Betrayal

Spycraft. I can find reading pleasure from spy stories, both true and fiction. One of the finest I’ve read in recent years is The Billion Dollar Spy by David E. Hoffman. Journalist Hoffman presents the story of Adolf Tolkachev, a Soviet radar specialist, who provided reams of technical military secrets to the CIA. Thanks to Hoffman’s fine writing, we come to understand Tolkachev, his family, his motivations, and the ways in which spycraft was conducted during the height of the cold war. The value of the information received for the compensation paid to Tolkachev will alarm most readers. Any reader interested in the cold war will likely enjoy reading this finely written account. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Billion Dollar Spy from

The Kill

Secrets. The fifth novel in the series by Jane Casey featuring detective Maeve Kerrigan is titled, The Kill. This novel has all the elements fans love in crime fiction: murder, suspense, well-developed characters, and a mystery to solve Casey proceeds at a pace that may frustrate those who prefer fast-paced thrillers, but will delight those readers who like the gradual presentation of a case to allow a reader time to puzzle out the likely perpetrator. Here’s an example of the prose that delighted me, but might frustrate other readers: “Tea, the answer for every problem. Burglary? Tea. Missing child? Tea. Dead husband? Tea. No one ever seemed to drink it. For us, the cups were a prop, something to do with your hands while gently delivering the bad news and easing yourself back out to the street.” (p.47) There are secrets at the core of this novel, and the relationships are fascinating to observe, given their complexity. Readers who like crime fiction should consider reading this novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Kill from

The Taming of the Queen

Survivor. The narrator and protagonist of Philippa Gregory’s novel, The Taming of the Queen, is Kateryn Parr, the sixth wife of King Henry VIII. Gregory presents Parr as a smart and independent woman of significant accomplishments, who survived the plots by the court to remove her as Queen, and who outlived Henry. The taming referenced in the title involves a personal degradation that reveals aspects of Henry that will disgust many readers. Readers who like historical fiction, especially those with strong female protagonists, are those most likely to enjoy reading this novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Taming of the Queen from


Money. Readers who enjoy finely written short stories will find a baker’s dozen in a collection by Karen Bender titled, Refund. The structure of the short story requires efficiency by the writer. Bender excels at quick observation, brief description, and deep insight accomplished within a few sentences. These stories fit well together because of a common theme relating to money. Beneath this is the question of value and what something or someone is worth. Bender explores this theme with great skill, and most readers will find something to like in this collection. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Refund from


Magic. I’ve found non-fiction accounts of Richard Nixon to leave me with confusion and questions about his behavior and motivation in his public and private life. I felt much clearer with the alternative fictional Nixon presented by Austin Grossman in his novel titled, Crooked. In this book, Nixon is a hero, and as narrator, he removes his mask to reveal what forces led him to do what he did throughout his life. To whatever extent you’re willing to suspend disbelief and are open to the notion of Nixon as America’s savior, you are likely to love or hate this novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Crooked from

Secondhand Souls

Bridge. Readers looking to escape with a zany novel should consider reading Christopher Moore’s Secondhand Souls. Reprised characters from A Dirty Job and Coyote Blue enhance the reading pleasure for fans, but a first-time reader may be well-entertained by this novel. Souls of the dead are disappearing in San Francisco, and even stranger things are happening. There’s a banshee having fun trying to marshal forces to act, and the Golden Gate Bridge may never look the same to this reader after ingesting Moore’s spooky images. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Secondhand Souls from

The Fishermen

Folklore. I picked up a copy of Chigozie Obioma’s debut novel, The Fishermen, after it was short listed for the 2015 Man Booker Prize. Obioma draws readers into a Nigerian village in the 1990s and the lives of brothers growing up at that time. A madman predicts tragedy, and the impact of his story on the lives of the brothers provides the action in the novel. I found the prose lyrical, and recommend this novel to any reader who may have in interest in Nigerian life, family dynamics, and the power of belief in our lives. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Fishermen from

The Gap of Time

Winter. Hogarth has initiated a series in which contemporary writers present versions of Shakespeare’s works. The first in the series is by Jeanette Winterson and is titled, The Gap of Time. Based on The Winter’s Tale, I wondered whether Winterson chose that less familiar play because of her name. In any event, while it has been decades since I read the play, I remembered enough to delight in Winterson’s novel. Even readers who don’t know the play will enjoy Winterson’s novel because of her successful development of characters and plot and the brief synopsis she presents of the play. In fewer than three hundred pages, Winterson presents passion, anger, betrayal, child abduction, love and much more using vivid prose that kept me entertained from beginning to end. Readers who like Shakespeare and a ripping good story and those most likely to enjoy this novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Gap of Time from

Did You Ever Have a Family

Wedding. I savored so many components of Bill Clegg’s debut novel titled, Did You Ever Have a Family. I enjoyed the absence of a question mark in the title since it caught my attention immediately and made me think. Clegg uses multiple narrators to assemble points of view that reflect a wide range of human behavior, and tease out for a reader a slowly developed understanding of the pivotal action in the novel: a house fire the night before a wedding. I appreciate the tension among multiple characters, insight into small town community, and Clegg’s presentation of the long process of grief and forgiveness. Though finely written restrained prose, Clegg offers insight into how individuals can bear the unbearable. Fans of literary fiction and good writing are those most likely to enjoy this novel. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase Did You Ever Have a Family from

Thursday, October 15, 2015


Kudos. Jonathan Franzen won me over on so many levels in his novel titled, Purity. As one who is quick to judge, he trapped me into suspending my judgment. As one who thought that era for sweeping 19th century novels like those of Dickens and Fielding were long gone, he revived much of the form to my great satisfaction. As one who dislikes reading endlessly about sad and depressing dysfunctional relationships, Franzen caught me up short as he made a difficult mother-daughter relationship funny and loving, despite the mother being one of the most difficult persons presented in fiction. Toxic relationships can make us unclean, but love can purify anything. Kudos to Franzen on what I consider his best novel yet. Any reader who loves great writing and who can find humor in our human foibles will find a lot to enjoy in this novel. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase Purity from

Midnight in Siberia: A Train Journey into the Heart of Russia

People. Some of us enjoy travel because of the pleasure in meeting people a bit different from ourselves. Some books can do that for us without providing jet lag or travel hassles. David Greene tells a story of the people of Russia in his book titled, Midnight in Siberia: A Train Journey into the Heart of Russia. Greene introduces us to people in Russia who are very much like us, and a bit different. He helps us understand those differences through his skill at storytelling. I completed the book with a fresh understanding of the reasons for Putin’s popularity in Russia. Readers interested in Russia or in stories of foreign travel are those most likely to enjoy this book. The pace of the story increases after a shot or two of vodka. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Midnight in Siberia from

The Festival of Insignificance

Navel. If ours is the age of navel gazing, then Milan Kundera’s novel, The Festival of Insignificance, is our anthem. Light and philosophical, serious and tongue in cheek, Kundera’s writing in this book and others can be an acquired taste. From p.113: “Insignificance, my friend, is the essence of existence. It is all around us, and everywhere and always. … But it is not only a matter of acknowledging it, we must love insignificance we must lean to love it.” If this meditation on the navel sounds like your kind of book, go for it. I often enjoyed the rambling prose, and was most pleased when it was finished. Rating: Three-star (It’s ok) Click here to purchase The Festival of Insignificance from

Let's Be Less Stupid: An Attempt to Maintain My Mental Faculties

Zany. I enjoy reading Patty Marx in The New Yorker, so when I saw her book titled, Let's Be Less Stupid: An Attempt to Maintain My Mental Faculties, I knew I had to read it. Neuroscience meets humor and I would try to describe what I read in this book, but since I forget when I read it or what it said, you’re on your own with this one. I’ve never bothered doing Sodoku puzzles or the crossword in the paper, and since after reading the book, I haven’t started, that must mean neuroscience debunks the value of those things to maintain brain health. Or maybe I forgot to start doing them. Anyway, if you’re a reader who can laugh at the aging process into which some of us go kicking and screaming while forgetting the alternative, pick up this book for a few good laughs. Happiness must increase longevity, right? Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Let’s Be Less Stupid from

Jack of Spades

Theft. I had the sense that Joyce Carol Oates had a lot of fun writing her novel titled, Jack of Spades. Protagonist Andrew Rush writes popular mystery novels, and in secret his alter ego writes noir under the pseudonym Jack of Spades. Andy is accused of theft by C.W. Haider and his life turns inside out. This is a short novel by Oates’ standard, and when I finished my initial reaction was this is Oates-lite. After a short while, I realized how finely constructed the novel is, and its efficiency added to how it all works so well. Readers who like well-written fiction are those most likely to enjoy this novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Jack of Spades from

One Man Against the World: The Tragedy of Richard Nixon

Enemies. The criminal behavior of Richard Nixon while president of the United States may have been a turning point in the attitude of citizens about political leadership. Tim Weiner presents a fresh look at Nixon in his book titled, One Man Against the World: The Tragedy of Richard Nixon. Thanks to the ongoing release of documents and tape recordings, more is known now than in the past about what happened during the Nixon presidency. It was even worse than I imagined. Nixon’s focus on enemies, domestic and foreign, real and imagined, became all-consuming. His duplicity at the time he was in office led me to a rule of thumb about most politicians: whenever they say, “this is not about x,” it is most certainly all about x. Readers interested in politics and recent history will find a lot to enjoy in this finely written book. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase One Man Against the World from

The Girl in the Spider's Web

Survived. I was prepared to dislike David Lagercrantz’ novel titled, The Girl in the Spider’s Web. After all, Lisbeth Salander is Stieg Larsson’s creation, and could another author be both true to this unique character and allow her to develop in new ways? The answer, for me, is a resounding yes. Salander soars in this novel, both consistent to who we have known her to be, and in many ways fresh as we learn new things about her. Mikael Blomkvist is also back, and deep in the thick of things. While some readers of Larsson’s Millennium series would have preferred to leave the trilogy alone, I was entertained by spending a few more hours with Salander, and am pleased that the series has been placed in competent hands. I may even want to read another. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Girl in the Spider’s Web from

Called for Life: How Loving Our Neighbor Led Us into the Heart of the Ebola Epidemic

Inspiring. Most readers on seeing the cover of the book titled, Called for Life: How Loving Our Neighbor Led Us into the Heart of the Ebola Epidemic, will recall the doctor who caught ebola in Liberia in 2013 and returned to the United States for treatment. This short book presents the story of husband and wife Kent and Amber Brantly and their life of service. Any reader will be inspired by their story. Believers will understand the depth of their prayer life and the nature of their vocation. Less devout readers may be distracted and a bit bewildered by the amount of praying referenced in this book, but that alone may explain why individuals like the Brantlys do what they do for others. Anyone looking for an inspiring story should consider reading this one. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Called for Life from

The Heart Goes Last

Imaginative. Margaret Atwood is that rare writer who can be imaginative, funny, caustic, and reflective at the same time she fully entertains most readers with a compelling story. I thoroughly enjoyed her latest novel titled, The Heart Goes Last. She takes readers to a society like our own in a time quite similar to ours, injects evil and love, and offers a mirror to modern life that will lead many readers to squirm and smile. Any reader who enjoys fine writing and who likes to laugh and think will find much to enjoy in this novel. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase The Heart Goes Last from

So You Don't Get Lost in the Neighborhood

Place. Readers with the patience and tolerance to read fiction that relies on neither plot nor character are those most likely to enjoy reading Patrick Modiano’s novel titled, So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighborhood. I enjoyed the ways in which Modiano presented a sense of place and the exploration of memory. The atmosphere he creates comes to life in ways that entertained me. A few months ago, I read his book, Suspended Sentences, in which he did much the same thing. I may skip the rest of the Modiano oeuvre now that I think I get his shtick. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase So You Don’t Get Lost from