Thursday, May 26, 2016

The Summer Before the War

Vivid. Helen Simonson wrote everything so well in her novel titled, The Summer Before the War. Set in a small Sussex town in 1914, Simonson presents all the familiarity of village life with the separation of class, gender and expected behavior of that time. She draws the setting with vivid language, and develops each character with insight and skill. Readers know the change that all characters are likely to face after war arrives, but are willing to allow Simonson to bring us and the full cast along as events unfold. Readers looking for summer reading that includes fine writing and that takes one to another time and place should consider this novel. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase The Summer Before the War from

The Nest

Plumb. Do readers really need another debut novel about a dysfunctional New York family? Maybe. Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney’s novel, The Nest, presents the Plumb family, and chances are that most readers would not trade their own families for this one. The title refers to an inheritance the father of four set aside for them to receive when the youngest sibling turns forty. The anticipation of receiving this “nest” has influenced the lives of each sibling and their significant others. Sweeney draws out the plot one swerve after another, and develops the characters with great skill. Her writing kept me engaged throughout the novel, and the large cast of characters were a real kick. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Nest from

The Patriarch

Conflicts. Old and new conflicts take center stage in the Bruno, Chief of Police novel by Martin Walker titled, The Patriarch. Protagonist Bruno Courreges, is the police presence for the Dordogne town of Saint-Denis. As in the earlier novels of this series, the Dordogne is developed as well as any character, and food and drink are explored with great pleasure. The crime that gives the plot momentum for the eating and for helping readers feel as if we are in the Dordogne, is an interesting one, and Bruno gets just the help he needs to tie all the threads together. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Patriarch from

A Thousand Naked Strangers: A Paramedic's Wild Ride to the Edge and Back

Grady. Kevin Hazzard tells fewer than a thousand stories in his book titled, A Thousand Naked Strangers: A Paramedic's Wild Ride to the Edge and Back. He reflects about the decade he spent as a paramedic, mostly at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta. I laughed often and winced regularly. Hazzard had a lot of fun as a paramedic, became very good at the job, then burned out. He describes all of this and more in this engaging book. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase A Thousand Naked Strangers from

Lab Girl

Invitation. So many memoirs are self-serving on the one hand or totally dysfunctional on the other. Readers will find something quite different in Hope Jahren’s memoir titled, Lab Girl. Jahren is a biologist, a prominent scientist, and her book is a subtle invitation to young women: this is a great life, consider becoming a scientist just like me. Her voice encourages close attention, her love of plants might become contagious, and her humor keeps the book moving along at a brisk pace. If any of that sounds interesting to you, chances are you will be delighted by this memoir. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Lab Girl from

Alice & Oliver

Cancer. Writers are often advised to write about what they know. The struggle with that advice involves deciding how to write about what one knows. The novel, Alice and Oliver, writes about a couple’s experience with cancer, something author Charles Bock knows a lot about from his own experience. Bock’s decision about how to write about this made all the difference for readers of this novel. Instead of mining all the roller coaster emotional components of this experience, Bock chooses the daily slog of doing one thing after another. He focuses on the psychological dimensions with great skill. His presentation of the health care system with all the associated frustration and financial jeopardy comes across with great clarity and insight. Bock’s characters are well-developed, and readers who enjoy finely written fiction are those most likely to enjoy reading this novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Alice and Oliver from

Inherited Disorders: Stories, Parables & Problems

Patrimony. For Father’s Day reading, consider the debut by Adam Ehrlich Sachs titled, Inherited Disorders. In over a hundred short and shorter chapters, Sachs riffs on the many different dimensions of father-son relationships. The stories are funny, poignant, sometimes sad, and always witty and well-written. Sometimes the sins of the father are repeated, often the sons take the opposite path from the father. A sense of disorder permeates many stories, as does Sachs’ insight into human nature and the ways in which we behave. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Inherited Disorders from

The Gangster

Adversaries. The latest Clive Cussler series novel featuring detective Isaac Bell is titled, The Gangster. Set in New York at the beginning of the twentieth century, the novel pits the Black Hand against the Van Dorn Detective Agency. These formulaic novels provide entertainment to those readers who enjoy the predictability of the good guys defeating all adversaries. The action in this novel proceeds more slowly than others in the series, and the ending seemed more abrupt than I expected. For consistent, reliable historical crime fiction, consider reading this novel and this series. Rating: Three-star (It’s ok) Click here to purchase The Gangster from


Killer. I approached L.S. Hilton’s debut novel, Maestra, with high expectations. I heard that she was introducing a strong female protagonist, and that the writing was superb. We meet the narrator of the novel, Judith Rashleigh, when she is working for a prominent art auction house. She wants to leave behind her working class background and use her university education to move ahead. Before long, we discover that Judith loves sex, which Hilton describes in great detail. While I stopped reading Fifty Shades because of poor writing, Hilton does write well in this novel, but I found the vulgarity of meaningless sex shallow and unnecessary. That wasn’t why I hated this novel. Judith is a killer and a sociopath, but Hilton never develops her character with any depth. She kills, she has sex, she schemes and plots. I found that lack of character development to be a missed opportunity. There’s an Oxford don reading this novel by graduate Hilton, and shaking his or her head. Readers who are satisfied with plot, violence, and could care less about mindless sex and weak character development are those most likely to enjoy reading this novel. Rating: One-star (I hate it) Click here to purchase Maestra from

And Then All Hell Broke Loose: Two Decades in the Middle East

Concise. Some writers trying to cover a twenty year period of dramatic change would be just getting started after 250 pages. Not NBC foreign correspondent Richard Engel. In just over 250 pages of a book titled, And Then All Hell Broke Loose: Two Decades in the Middle East, Engel presents his personal story as a broadcast journalist in the Middle East and offers plenty of insight about the turmoil in that place over the past two decades. Engel writes with an authoritative style, reflecting his study of the area and its long troubled history alongside his presence in the area as turmoil erupted. Any reader interested in public policy and looking for some perspective about the past twenty years in the Middle East will find much of value on the pages of this finely written book. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase And Then All Hell Broke Loose from

Friday, May 13, 2016

Minute Zero

Used. Todd Moss continues to make the art of diplomacy thrilling through his recurring protagonist, Judd Ryker, and a new novel titled, Minute Zero. Ryker is a crisis manager for the Department of State, and in this novel, he’s sent to Zimbabwe, where a presidential election and rumors of a sale of enriched uranium create a volatile environment. The title refers to the ability to shape events during a very brief period of time; miss the window and the events may proceed toward a disastrous outcome. Todd is being manipulated, used in fact, in ways he cannot see. Fans of thrillers are those most likely to enjoy reading this novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Minute Zero from

Down Among the Dead Men

Sussex. Peter Lovesey expands his Peter Diamond crime fiction series with a novel titled, Down Among the Dead Men. Detective Diamond has been dragged kicking and screaming from Bath on an outing to Sussex with his boss, Assistant Chief Constable Georgina Dallymore. Their humorous dialogue is reason enough to recommend this novel. Dallymore was called in specifically to handle an internal investigation about a Sussex detective who was suspended for the handling of a murder case. With Diamond on the case, things are observed and the dots are connected. Fans of crime fiction will find a lot to enjoy in this novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Down Among the Dead Men from

Green Hell

Avenger. Ken Bruen reprises protagonist Jack Taylor for a pleasurable crime novel titled, Green Hell. If your view of Ireland is that it is a little bit of heaven, expand your horizons with this novel that presents Galway as a living hell. Taylor has found a new low point, with a dead best friend and a search for refuge in drugs and drink. He stirs out of lethargy by taking on a cause: vengeance against a professor whose violence upsets the ex-Garda in Jack. The plot moves quickly, the dialogue is lively, and the chaos is an outright delight. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Green Hell from

The Winter Girl

Twisted. Were he alive, Alfred Hitchcock would make a movie of Matt Marinovich’s novel, The Winter Girl, with glee. It’s a great story, truly scary, and full of plot twists that entertain. Packed with strained relationships, the novel maintains tension from beginning to end, just what most readers want from a thriller. I found myself visualizing many scenes as I read, and even sensing creepy background music at the right places. Readers who like scary thrillers are those most likely to enjoy reading this novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Winter Girl from

Brush Back

Blink. Few mystery writers attain excellence from multiple elements. One such writer is Sara Paretsky, and you can find the evidence in her novel titled, Brush Back. Complicated plots entertain crime fiction fans, and this plot moves in many directions, to great satisfaction. Characters must be compelling, and protagonist, V.I. Warshawski, comes across as the real thing. Also, the ways in which Paretsky explores families over time display her great insight into human nature. Finally, descriptive language, when well chosen, places readers into a specific location and time period. Paretsky brings Chicago neighborhoods and attitudes into your backyard, or wherever you’re likely to read this novel. Paretsky does all this as an expert, and she kept my eyes so focused on the page that I had to remember to blink. If you like great detective fiction, read this novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Brush Back from

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

The Only Street in Paris: Life on the Rue des Martyrs

Community. When I walked along the rue des Martyrs in April 2015, I was unaware that a book would bring me back there a year later. Elaine Sciolino, former bureau chief for The New York Times in Paris, has written a lovely book about that street titled, The Only Street in Paris: Life on the Rue des Martyrs. We can fall in love with Paris for so many reasons, and Sciolino is totally enchanted by her life there. Her observations are thoughtful, and the sense of community she conveys, especially in the potluck dinner to which she draws people who live and work on the street, offers hope to each of us who does something every day to build community in the places where we live. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Only Street in Paris from

Death in Brittany

Inheritance. I always hesitate before opening the first novel in what is likely to be a series. Do I really want to add another author whose next installment I will look forward to while my reading queue grows beyond reason? In the case of Jean-Luc Bannelec’s Commissaire Dupin series, I didn’t hesitate long. The debut novel, titled, Death in Brittany, features police inspector Georges Dupin, who has moved from Paris to the Breton coast of France. Bannalec describes Brittany with a loving eye, develops Dupin and other characters well, and offers a mystery plot that is satisfying. This is a story about inheritance, and the strange ways in which family relationships seem to go awry. Dupin has the advantages and disadvantages of being an outsider, and the pace with which he solves the case seemed just right to me. Fans of crime fiction should take a look at this novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Death in Brittany from

Dark Corners

Carl. If it turns out that Dark Corners is the last novel by prolific author Ruth Rendell, readers can appreciate her ending on a note of great success. Protagonist Carl Martin is an unusual man with a host of strange relationships. Rendell squeezes every possible psychological stress out of Carl as we watch his life progress. Misfortune in the lives of others can provide great entertainment for some readers, and Rendell offers plenty of misfortune in this novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Dark Corners from

Even Dogs in the Wild

Fox. Fans of crime fiction will find a few hours of entertainment in a novel by Ian Rankin titled, Even Dogs in the Wild. Even though he has retired, John Rebus is back at work in this novel, and longtime fans will roar when they see what he does to help Big Ger Cafferty. While Rebus is on the case, it is Clarke and Fox who are running the show. The rapid development of Malcolm Fox in the field may indicate that as Rebus declines, Fox will increase. Good news for crime fiction fans all around. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Even Dogs in the Wild from

Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights

Jinn. I hope that Salman Rushdie had as much fun writing Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights as I had reading it. There’s comedy, satire, great storytelling, fantasy, philosophy and page after page of outstanding writing. Rushdie presents a hilarious cast of characters who are jinn, creatures so much like us and more so. The powers of the jinn will delight and entertain most readers. I can assure most readers that you have never read a novel quite like this one. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase Two Years from