Friday, September 23, 2016

Whistlestop: My Favorite Stories from Presidential Campaign History

Stories. I’ve listened to John Dickerson’s Whistlestop podcasts that led to his book titled, Whistlestop: My Favorite Stories from Presidential Campaign History. Even in print, I can hear his voice and the excitement he exudes when telling a fascinating political story. Any reader interested in American politics will enjoy the stories that Dickerson presents in this book. This book offers an interesting perspective: today’s lens applied to past politics. I found this book to be an engaging and entertaining way of feeding my political needs during a year when the current presidential campaign makes me want to turn the other way. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase Whistlestop from amazon.com.

Hot Milk

Advantage. Every page of Deborah Levy’s novel, Hot Milk is packed with rich, luscious prose. The narrative can seem to disconnect from reality on occasion, and as a reader I sometimes lost my bearings, just like protagonist Sofia. She has spent her life caring for her mother, Rose, who has a mysterious and debilitating illness. While her mother is in Spain under the care of a new doctor, Sofia visits her father. Levy uses this separation as a way for Sofia to come into her own identity and detach from an unhealthy linkage to Rose. Levy leads Sofia to explore the issue raised by her father’s young wife: why would we do anything other than to what is to our own advantage. In one way or another, most novels lead us to ask questions of ourselves about what it means to be a living, vibrant person. Fans of literary fiction who enjoy finely written prose are those most likely to enjoy this novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Hot Milk from amazon.com.

The Invoice

Accounting. What’s in your wallet? What makes you happy? Jonas Karlsson explores the subject of happiness in his novel titled, The Invoice. An entity named World Resources Distribution has sent invoices to every citizen. The amount due reflects an accounting of the individual’s experienced happiness quotient. The happier one’s life has been, the larger sum that is due. The protagonist in the novel has received a huge bill and he has no ability to pay the bill. When he protests the invoice, an examination of his life leads to a new computation, reflecting that his happiness has been so great that his invoice was originally too small, not too large. Readers of this novel will never again think of the cost of living in the same way. Most readers will also reflect on one’s own happiness long after the last page of the novel has been turned. I found this novel to be clever, thought-provoking and compact enough to read in one or two sittings, and I highly recommend it to any reader who enjoys a blend of creativity, humor and profoundity. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase The Invoice from amazon.com.

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis

Authenticity. So many of us Americans live in our self-selected homogeneous communities. We can go months or years without any meaningful encounters with individuals whose lives are very different from our own. Some books can help us gain insight into lives different from our own, and one such book is J.D.Vance’s memoir titled, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. Vance provides a clear voice about a marginalized subculture in American society. His personal story is inspiring and offers great insight into the obstacles that class differences can create and that inhibit or restrict many individuals who are trying to cross boundaries from one subculture into another. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Hillbilly Elegy from amazon.com.

Manitou Canyon

November. In the fifteenth novel of the Cork O’Connor series by William Kent Krueger, it’s pretty clear that this protagonist has plenty of reasons to dislike November. Titled Manitou Canyon, this novel draws readers more deeply into the remote Boundary Waters area between Minnesota and Canada. The weather is turning foul, but Cork feels an obligation to take on a case, despite coming close on his daughter’s wedding date. Fans of the series will enjoy all the familiar characters. The past, especially November events, has a strong influence on the present. The case is packed with tense action, the plot is engaging, the characters complex and interesting, and the overall novel highly entertaining. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Manitou Canyon from amazon.com.

Friday, September 16, 2016

A Great Reckoning

Grief. The 12th Chief Inspector Gamache novel by Louise Penny is titled, A Great Reckoning. There’s a lot of reckoning in this novel, but the great reckoning is both great and unexpected. Fans of the series will be delighted by the return of this interesting cast of characters led by Armand Gamache. We even learn more about Three Pines in this installment. There are plenty of twists, surprises and dogs. Much of the novel centers around grief and its long lasting effects. Penny keeps readers interested in solving the mysteries, while she proceeds at her own pace. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase A Great Reckoning from amazon.com.

The Hopefuls

Friendship. For those readers looking for an escape through fiction from the polarized reality of a presidential election season, consider reading Jennifer Close’s novel, The Hopefuls. Close presents two political couples, and explores their friendship and their marriages. While often funny, stress and tension drive the plot, and the presentation of both marriage and friendship rings true. Set in D.C. and Texas, both settings anchor the action with a strong sense of place, and proximity to power and the use of ambition as fuel felt perfect. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Hopefuls from amazon.com.

Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War

Questioning. Whenever questions enter Mary Roach’s fertile mind, she searches for answers, then shares them with readers, to our great benefit. Her latest book titled, Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War, explores the science of how the military tries to keep its members healthy and safe. Any given topic could become a comprehensive book-length study, but Roach contains herself as she chooses to distill lots of observations into cogent anecdotes that both inform and entertain. She explores such diverse topics as heat exposure, shark repellent, sleep, and diarrhea. On these topics and others, readers can count on lively writing, interesting anecdotes and some sating of Roach’s curiosity and ours. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Grunt from amazon.com.

Rise the Dark

Infrastructure. Not long after I finished reading Michael Koryta’s novel, Last Words, I quickly read his second novel to feature protagonist Markus Novak titled, Rise the Dark. While this novel stands well on its own, a reader’s insight into the depth of character is enhanced from having read the prior novel. Novak wants to find his wife’s killer, and much of the suspense in this thriller involves his quest. Koryta captures setting so well in this novel, especially rural Montana. A major part of the plot involves the vulnerability of our infrastructure to sabotage, and that component adds to the taut tension that provides plot momentum. Readers who love fast-paced thrillers are those most likely to enjoy reading this novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Rise the Dark from amazon.com.

Grief Is the Thing with Feathers

Tornado. From the first page through the last of Max Porter’s debut novel titled, Grief Is the Thing with Feathers, I felt like I was lifted by a tornado and taken to some other place where I landed with total disorientation. That’s precisely what grief can do to us. We are pulled away from our life in a whirlwind and land with a sense of disorientation given our loss. Porter captures that sensation with prose, poetry, dreams, the character of a trickster crow and many other devices that support his effort to create art that conveys grief. This may be the most unusual novel I’ve read this year, and I liked it a lot. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Grief Is the Thing with Feathers from amazon.com.

Friday, September 9, 2016

The Underground Railroad

Cora. Readers can count on Colson Whitehead to offer something new with each book he writes, whether fiction or non-fiction. For me, he’s written his finest book yet in his novel titled, The Underground Railroad. Through the journey of protagonist, Cora, a slave, Whitehead draws readers into many of the long lasting effects of slavery on modern life. While I laughed at first at Whitehead’s depiction of the Underground Railroad as something under the earth with trains and tracks, I realized how important that image was to the nature of the journey and its effects. Whitehead draws out so many of the insidious aspects of racial conflict and different manifestations of the exploitation of “the other.” Cora longs for true freedom, and Whitehead writes about that longing with great skill, in a story that will keep most readers engaged and enraged from beginning to end. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase The Underground Railroad from amazon.com.

Homegoing

Elements. It’s rare for me to rate a debut novel with the highest rating. Yaa Gyasi earned each of five stars with her novel titled, Homegoing. I can be satisfied with fiction that tells one story well. Gyasi tells the stories of multiple characters across generations. For each setting and character, her lyrical language draws us into vivid settings, and her insight into human behavior offers readers highly developed and complex characters. She tells each of those stories with great skill, using elements of fire, water and dreams to create a compact novel full of fine writing. Readers who enjoy finely written prose with interesting characters are those most likely to enjoy this novel. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase Homegoing from amazon.com.

The Kingdom of Speech

Artifact. Tom Wolfe uses fewer than two hundred pages in his book titled, The Kingdom of Speech, to offer his views and skewer Charles Darwin and Noam Chomsky in the process. More like a long essay, this book makes one key point: speech is a special artifact, unique to man, and is not evolutionary. I’m not sure about Wolfe’s science on this topic, but his verbal dexterity met my expectations. Read for yourself if you have any interest in the subject matter. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Kingdom of Speech from amazon.com.

Break in Case of Emergency

Foundation. I laughed, winced and nodded in affirmation often while reading Jessica Winter’s debut novel titled, Break in Case of Emergency. Protagonist Jen is a painter whose day job has been working at a feminist not for profit foundation. The celebrity boss is wacko, the workplace toxic, and Jen is trying to have a baby. The themes of motherhood and art elevate this novel beyond light satire and toward insight into the struggles of contemporary life and our search for meaning. I enjoyed Winter’s fine writing, her ability to skewer with precision, and to draw a distinction between what is important and what isn’t. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Break in Case of Emergency from amazon.com.

Heroes of the Frontier

Dentist. I wonder if the selection of a troubled dentist as protagonist for Dave Eggers’ novel, Heroes of the Frontier, will attract more readers (like dentists) or repel readers (like those who hate going to dentists). Protagonist Josie lost her dental practice due to her malpractice on a patient. She has split up with the father of her children, and when he wants the children to meet his fiancĂ©e’s parents, Josie takes the kids to the Alaska wilderness in an RV they call the Chateau. The novel is a search for shelter and refuge, from threats real and imagined. Josie’s troubles come from external sources and from inside her mind. With nothing left to lose, Josie takes her children to the last frontier where they are totally unprepared for what life and nature brings. In this novel Eggers has added to his ongoing examination of human folly and modern life. Readers ready for a dark story are those most likely to enjoy reading this one. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Heroes of the Frontier from amazon.com.

Guilty Minds

Secret. The third novel by Joseph Finder to feature private investigator Nick Heller is titled, Guilty Minds. A gossip website is about to issue a shocking article about the chief justice, and Nick has been hired to avert this scandal. He has just two days in which to get the job done. The plot moves quickly, and things are not as they appear to be, especially when a character is killed. Nick uncovers a secret and brings the case to a very satisfying conclusion. Fans of crime fiction and this series are those most likely to enjoy reading this entertaining novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Guilty Minds from amazon.com.

The Unquiet Dead

Srebrenica. Readers who enjoy detective fiction may consider Ausma Zehanat Khan’s debut novel titled, The Unquiet Dead. Khan begins a series featuring two Canadian detectives, Rachel Getty and her boss, Esa Khattak. Esa asks Rachel to investigate the case of Christopher Drayton who died after falling from a cliff near his home. As the case unfolds, we learn that Drayton was living under an assumed name, and that his background involved participation in the Bosnian-Serbian war, and actions he performed in Srebrenica. Khan develops her characters with great skill, and the plot will satisfy most mystery lovers. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Unquiet Dead from amazon.com.

Killer Look

Fashion. Linda Fairstein’s 18th novel featuring Assistant District Attorney Alexandra Cooper is titled, Killer Look. Fans of the series will be delighted with the area of New York that gets Fairstein’s attention this time around: the garment district. There’s murder, the familiar cast of characters, lots of drinking and just the right number of Final Jeopardy episodes. Throughout this novel, Alex is recovering from the trauma she suffered in the last novel. That increased her drinking, and made her more vulnerable and less decisive. Nonetheless, crime fiction fans and loyal readers of this series will find a great story with some new things to learn about New York City and the fashion district. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Killer Look from amazon.com.

The House of Secrets

Recovery. There were times while I was reading Brad Meltzer’s novel, The House of Secrets, that I felt like I was riding a roller coaster. The plot sped up and crashed before slowly building to the next twist. Protagonist Hazel-Ann Nash is trying to recover memories following an accident in which she and her brother were injured and her father, Jack, killed. Jack was the longtime host of a conspiracy television program, The House of Secrets. She struggles to regain her lost memories, and tries to differentiate between reality and imagination. There’s a link to Benedict Arnold at the heart of this novel, and stories that Jack told Hazel-Ann as a child provide clues to making sense of the present. Patient readers will be rewarded by the end with unraveling a complicated plot. Impatient readers may find easier entertainment elsewhere. Rating: Three-star (It’s ok) Click here to purchase The House of Secrets from amazon.com.

Under the Harrow

Sisters. Readers who enjoy crime fiction can start and finish Flynn Berry’s debut novel, Under the Harrow, in a single day. Protagonist and narrator, Nora, leaves London to visit her sister, Rachel, in Oxfordshire. Rachel has been stabbed multiple times in her home and is dead. Berry offers some backstory about the sisters as she builds suspense and suspicion while examining grief and what we don’t know about people close to us. After drawing readers into an understanding of the lives of Nora and Rachel, Berry brings the action to an abrupt ending. For some readers, this novel will provide just the right entertainment while at the beach or on an airplane. Rating: Three-star (It’s ok) Click here to purchase Under the Harrow from amazon.com.

Friday, September 2, 2016

The Capitalist

Con. The first novel I’ve read by Peter Steiner featuring former CIA operative Louis Morgon is the fifth in that series and is titled, The Capitalist. Morgon’s adversary in this novel is St. John Larrimer, a money manager who defrauded customers and fled with billions of dollars. Morgon lost money to Larrimer, but that didn’t set him on a path to con the con artist to bring him to justice. Morgon’s lover, Pauline, is distraught because her brother Jean-Baptiste was a victim of the scam. This novel is mostly crime thriller, but also an exploration of remorse and redemption, and ultimately satisfaction. Readers who like slow pacing in crime novels will enjoy this book. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Capitalist from amazon.com.

Modern Romance

Anthropology. I’ve been absent from the dating scene for more decades than I can reasonably remember, so reading Aziz Ansari’s book on the subject titled, Modern Romance, was like reading anthropological ethnography about an unfamiliar culture. One clear difference is that few ethnographies are this humorous. Were Ansari not so funny, I might have been totally confused and lost. If this book was entertaining to an old guy like me, it must be a real delight to anyone under age 40. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Modern Romance from amazon.com.

A Manual for Cleaning Women

Alcohol. Every one of the forty three short stories in the collection titled for one of them, A Manual for Cleaning Women, by the late Lucia Berlin, packs a punch. Written over three decades, the 1960s through 1980s, these stories were often fueled by a life lived streetwise and often fueled by too much alcohol. The gritty life of the working class spits at readers from every page, and the efficiency of the story genre makes every one crisp, sharp and complete. There’s plenty of humor and insight into human behavior. Any reader who enjoys finely written stories will find plenty in this collection. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase A Manual for Cleaning Women from amazon.com.

The Ultimatum

Drones. Dick Wolf has reprised detective Jeremy Fisk for another thrilling novel titled, The Ultimatum. A sniper wreaks havoc and uses drones in ways that cause terror on the streets of New York. Wolf’s pace starts fast and then accelerates in this novel. Fans of crime fiction who like fast-paced action are those readers most likely to enjoy this novel and this series. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Ultimatum from amazon.com.

Stranger, Father, Beloved

Detached. After I finished reading Taylor Larsen’s debut novel titled, Stranger, Father, Beloved, I felt like I needed some sort of cleansing. I had spent hours with a toxic set of characters, in strained relationships and I needed to wash them away from my life. Larsen’s prose is finely crafted, and her immersion into a family experiencing alienation and grappling with mental illness made for some intense reading. I didn’t find that the intensity led to depth. The characters seemed so consistent from the beginning of the novel to the end that I didn’t experience their development or complexity. The whole cast of characters would benefit from therapy, either as individuals or in groups. While the novel captures elements of the alienation experienced by many individuals in contemporary society, I longed for some direction in the plot other than the course set from the beginning. Readers who enjoy literary fiction and are always looking for promising new authors are those most likely to enjoy reading this novel. Rating: Three-star (It’s ok) Click here to purchase Stranger, Father, Beloved from amazon.com.