Friday, June 16, 2017

Is It All in Your Head?

Psychogenic. Dr. Suzanne O’Sullivan, a neurologist, has written an interesting and engaging book about psychogenic disease titled, Is It All In Your Head?. Spoiler alert: yes, it is in your head, but that doesn’t reduce the very real physical pain. In medicine and in society at large, there have been huge gaps in communicating effectively about psychosomatic illness. Through the cases presented in this book, O’Sullivan calls attention to the challenges of communicating effectively, and reveals her own shortcomings with different patients. Her overall treatment is sensitive and informative. The mind is a marvelous thing, and can exert significant control over the body in ways that become debilitating. Health care professionals or general readers interested in medicine or the mind are those most likely to enjoy reading this book. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Is It All in Your Head from amazon.com.

The Last Days of Night

Cravath. Fans of historical fiction that doesn’t stray far from fact are those most likely to enjoy reading Graham Moore’s novel titled, The Last Days of Night. Set in the 1890s, the novel features a large cast of well-known characters including George Westinghouse, Thomas Edison, Nicola Tesla, J.P. Morgan and Alexander Graham Bell. The protagonist is young lawyer Paul Cravath whose name may be known to many, but whose life hasn’t been written about often. Cravath is hired by Westinghouse to defend his company in lawsuits with Edison over light bulb patents. Moore captures the excitement of the time when inventions were proliferating and fortunes were being made. Moore even makes the lawsuits exciting. The pace of the novel is quicker than most thrillers, and I was enthralled and entertained from beginning to end. A friend who is an attorney recommended this novel, and I put it at the top of my queue. I never would have guessed on my own that a lawyer could have been such an interesting character. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Last Days of Night from amazon.com.

A Horse Walks into a Bar

Standup. After I finished reading David Grossman’s novel titled, A Horse Walks into a Bar, I was as physically drained as I am after a heavy workout at the gym. The structure of the novel covers one night, the bulk of which we observe as protagonist Doveleh Greenstein performs a standup comedy routine for an audience in Netanya. Dov’s shtick is funny at times, but he is not an endearing character, and much of his humor is dark. I might have been one of the audience members to leave the show. Personal reflections on his life get darker as he describes life with a Holocaust survivor mother and a detached father. Grossman won the Man Booker International Prize for this novel. My guess is that the raw, unremitting truth and the efficient writing appealed to the judges who recognized Grossman’s great skill. Get a good rest before reading this novel, because Dov leaves everything on the stage before he ends his standup and being an audience member listening to him can become physically draining. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase A Horse Walks into a Bar from amazon.com.

The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation

Resistance. Ron Dreher proposes a radical form of community life for Christians in his book titled, The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation. Instead of struggling to raise our children to not conform to the values they discern from secular culture, Dreher proposes forming communities of individuals with shared values. This call to community life has a long history which Dreher describes. While he belongs to the Eastern Orthodox Church, his message can apply to any believer struggling with the challenges of how to live a Christian life in a secular culture. Living in and not of the world has a long tradition, and whether a reader agrees with Dreher’s analysis and advice or not, most engaged Christians will find serious points for personal and communal consideration in this book. Non-Christians who wonder what all the fuss is about will also find clarity on some issues in this book. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Benedict Option from amazon.com.

The Fix

Dance. The third novel in a series by David Baldacci to feature protagonist Amos Decker is titled, The Fix. Fans of this series will enjoy the continuity from the last novel and the setup for the next one. I see this continuity and setup as the dance between the serial author and readers: for some dance partners the pace is too slow and for others the dance never lasts long enough. I was entertained by this novel, mostly because I think Amos Decker is a very interesting character, and he continues to develop in this novel in interesting ways. The dance for me was neither too fast nor too slow. The series moved on incrementally, and I look forward to another installment. Fans of Baldacci novels, whether this series or others, are those most likely to enjoy reading this novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Fix from amazon.com.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Testimony

Changes. One of the many things I like about Scott Turow’s legal thrillers is that the author always respects the intelligence of readers. In a new novel titled, Testimony, Turow describes the work of the International Criminal Court in The Hague and a case involving possible war crimes in Bosnia. Protagonist Bill ten Boom has embarked on several life changes at age fifty: leaving his wife, his law career and his country. Turow develops Boom with great skill, drawing readers into understanding of this character. A supporting cast of characters are also well-drawn and animate a plot that’s engaging, although slowed on occasion with expositional details about the court and war crimes. Fans of Turow are likely to zip through this novel quickly, and any reader who enjoys legal thrillers may find this novel among the best in the genre. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Testimony from amazon.com.

Gwendy's Button Box

Custodian. Did you know that even a prolific writer like Stephen King gets writer’s block? After telling fellow author Richard Chizmar that he was having trouble finishing a story, King accepted Chizmar’s offer to show him the story. What followed was a back and forth email exchange with both writers contributing to a novella titled, Gwendy's Button Box. Set in Castle Rock, Maine, the novel presents protagonist Gwendy Peterson who becomes the custodian for a time of a magical button box that has the capability to deliver both good and evil. King and Chizmar tackle coming of age, power, trust and responsibility in this short novel. I read it quickly and enjoyed every page. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Gwendy’s Button Box from amazon.com.

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry

Succinct. While I am no hurry when I read, I appreciate the concise prose by Neil deGrasse Tyson in his book titled, Astrophysics for People in a Hurry. Rather than dumbing down the content, Tyson presents astrophysics in a concise way. I found myself reading a chapter and then setting the book aside before starting another chapter. I finished this book still unable to teach astrophysics, but I am better informed for the next article I read, and when I run into the neighbor who heads a university physics department, I won’t be totally confused in a conversation. Any reader with a general interest in science will likely enjoy this book. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Astrophysics for People in a Hurry from amazon.com.

Four Princes: Henry VIII, Francis I, Charles V, Suleiman the Magnificent and the Obsessions that Forged Modern Europe

Transformation. As a casual reader of history, I gravitate toward books that synthesize and lean away from those that present detailed specialization. I was captivated by John Julius Norwich’s focus on the early 16th century titled, Four Princes: Henry VIII, Francis I, Charles V, Suleiman the Magnificent and the Obsessions that Forged Modern Europe. I enjoy the ways in which this talented historian connected these four rulers and explained with clarity how they led a dramatic transformation on the continent. I knew many things about each of these rulers before reading this book, but Norwich connected them in my brain and helped me understand what was happening in different parts of Europe at the same time. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Four Princes from amazon.com.

Men Without Women

Variety. The seven short stories in Haruki Murakami’s collection titled, Men Without Women, provide readers with a variety of perspectives on male alienation. Each story offers a close look at interesting characters and the ways they live in the world. I love Murakami’s humor and the ways in which he calls attention to details that we can easily overlook. Readers who enjoy Murakami, literary fiction, and especially short stories, are those most likely to enjoy this finely written collection. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Men Without Women from amazon.com.

Himself

Orphan. When I noted that Jess Kidd begins her debut novel, Himself, with a stranger coming to town, I sensed that life in the town was about to be disrupted. Protagonist Mahony was left at an orphanage as a baby, and when he left Dublin for the village of Mulderrig, what he thought he knew about his mother, Orla Sweeney, begins to change. Kidd pairs Mahony with an interesting cast of collaborators, living and dead, who turn the village upside down in a search for understanding. I enjoyed the dark comedy and the finely told story that entertained me thoroughly from beginning to end. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Himself from amazon.com.

Fallout

Kansas. The nineteenth novel in Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski series takes the private detective out of Chicago for a case in Kansas. In this book titled, Fallout, V.I. learns that events in the past provide the key to solving the case that led her to Kansas: the disappearance of a film student and an actress. Longtime fans of the series will enjoy spending time with Vic again, and watching so many plot lines get teased out and eventually resolved. Dog fans will love that Peppy joined Vic on the outing to Kansas. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Fallout from amazon.com.

Since We Fell

Deception. Appearances are deceiving throughout Dennis Lehane’s novel titled, Since We Fell. Fans of Lehane will love the ways in which he develops interesting and complex characters, moving them through a thrilling plot full of twists, while offering deep psychological insight along the way. Rachel Childs will be a memorable protagonist for most readers. Any single impression of Rachel will be proven to be grossly incomplete. Readers who can tolerate shocking violence and who enjoy psychological thrillers are those most likely to enjoy this novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Since We Fell from amazon.com.

The Book of Joan

Skin. Fans of dystopian post-apocalyptic fiction are those readers most likely to enjoy reading Lidia Yuknavitch’s novel titled, The Book of Joan. Set in 2049, most of Earth has been destroyed, and a wealthy cohort lives in a complex orbiting the planet and trying to steward resources to adapt and survive. Body modification involves odd skin grafts and telling stories on skin, one of which is an updated story of Joan of Dark, who fought against Jean de Men. Yuknavitch’s prose shows off her literary skills and fans of literary fiction will appreciate her well-chosen words and phrases. Rating: Three-star (It’s ok) Click here to purchase The Book of Joan from amazon.com.

The Wages of Sin

Doctor. Kaite Welsh’s debut novel titled, The Wages of Sin, introduces readers to a great protagonist, Sarah Gilchrist, a medical student in Edinburgh in the 1890s. This novel will appeal to readers who love character-based descriptive historical fiction. Sarah faces the obstacles that women of her time encountered especially at a medical school that “welcomed” her in its first coed class in 1892. Many readers will want Welsh to reprise Sarah in future novels. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Wages of Sin from amazon.com.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Into the Water

Viewpoints. Every time I allowed my attention to drift while reading Paula Hawkins’ novel titled, Into the Water, I was punished when I realized I lost track of what time period the narrative was in and whose viewpoint was being exposed. After the third time I had to re-read pages, Hawkins kept me alert with my full attention as the novel demands keeping track of a large cast of characters and different deaths at different times. The reward for this close reader was a delightful feeling of satisfaction when all the mysteries were solved. Fans of complicated plots and large casts of characters who all contribute important elements to the story, are those readers most likely to enjoy reading this complicated and entertaining mystery. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Into the Water from amazon.com.

Between Them: Remembering My Parents

Perspective. When a great novelist who has developed a protagonist with great depth over multiple novels turns to memoir, readers can wonder if the same depth and insight will be found in nonfiction. Richard Ford has written two memoirs about his parents, and combined them in a volume titled, Between Them: Remembering My Parents. One memoir was written decades ago; the other recently. Both offer the perspective of an only child, who observed his parents from his special place in their lives. Rather than complexity of character and depth, we see reflection and the result of observation over decades. Ford’s prose is finely written, and any reader who enjoys memoirs, or who is a fan of Ford, will find much to enjoy in this book. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Between Them from amazon.com.

On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century

Primer. Yale history professor Timothy Snyder offers readers a short book titled, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, that provides a primer on what the recent century might teach us about what is necessary to be done today. Any engaged citizen with concerns about our current political environment can spend a worthwhile half hour reading the lessons that Snyder offers. Whether you think our current divisive politics is a feature or a bug, there’s much to reflect on in this short volume. You may disagree with Snyder, but spending a few minutes thinking about this topic will be time well spent. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase On Tyranny from amazon.com.

Borne

Biotech. If a dose of dystopian fiction is on your reading menu, consider reading Jeff VanderMeer’s novel titled, Borne. A biotech firm called The Company, has wreaked havoc on a city with the results of its experiments. VanderMeer uses protagonist Rachel as our avatar living in this hostile environment. Questions of morality, including what it means to be human, elevate this novel above being just another futuristic exploration of a damaged world. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Borne from amazon.com.

Public Library and Other Stories

Language. Having read other works by Ali Smith, I was prepared for the pleasure of falling under the spell of her wordplay in a collection titled, Public Library and Other Stories. Smith’s skill with words can become dazzling, and at the same time make some readers feel unmoored. Words, books and libraries are all on display in this collection, and those readers who love our language are those most likely to enjoy reading this book. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Public Library from amazon.com.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

The Dinner Party

Insight. I had read in different periodicals many of the eleven short stories in the collection by Joshua Ferris titled after the opening story, The Dinner Party. What I appreciated in reading eleven stories together was the depth of insight into human behavior that Ferris uses to form his characters and frame his stories. There are great characters in these stories, and Ferris conveys their complexity with great skill and efficiency. The twists are wicked and the moral issues of modern life are presented with sensitivity and insight. I loved many of these stories, and recommend this collection to any reader who appreciates finely written literary fiction. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase The Dinner Party from amazon.com.

On Living

Hospice. I knew that Kerry Egan works as a hospice chaplain when I opened her book titled, On Living. I wasn’t sure what to expect as she began to present her story and the stories of people she met in hospice. Before I knew it, I noticed that each story built up my strongly positive feelings about the joy of living, and the important lessons that experience can teach us about living the best life we can live. There’s nothing preachy in the short book, just some personal stories. Readers looking to feel good about life should consider reading this inspiring book. I was surprised how moved I was by this finely written book. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase On Living from amazon.com.

Why Wall Street Matters

Reform. Many complicated issues are reduced to what can fit on a tweet, and too much explanation can’t overcome a few memorable phrases. “Break up the banks,” or “fat cats on Wall Street,” can convey sentiment, but not nuance or context. Financial writer William D. Cohan has written an easy to read, mostly jargon free book titled, Why Wall Street Matters, that provides readers without financial expertise with reasons why the demonization of Wall Street should stop. Cohan provides a history of Wall Street to create context, and explains why Wall Street should continue in its important role of allocating capital. He also calls for reform, but cautions against vitriol leading to actions with unintended consequences. He makes it plain that Wall Street compensation needs to be fixed, but that the core role of capital allocation keeps our economy strong. If you know something about finance, this book won’t teach you anything new, but it may help explain to doubters why you agree that Wall Street helps all of us. If you don’t know much about finance, this book can inform you about the role that Wall Street plays in your life and why that role should continue. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Why Wall Street Matters from amazon.com.

Trajectory

Next. Some of us fear what comes next. Richard Russo offers four stories in his book titled, Trajectory. The characters are tied up in knots of one form or another, in relationships, with medical issues, with ambivalence, anxiety and concern about what comes next. Russo mines that fear and shares it with readers using finely written prose that makes us love and hate different characters and want to see them progress on either their current or a different trajectory. Fans of literary fiction are those readers most likely to enjoy this book. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Trajectory from amazon.com.

Anything Is Possible

Depth. Sometimes after reading a novel, a reader can wonder about fictional characters, wanting to not let the character go and get to read more about a favorite protagonist. The popularity of serial fiction with recurring protagonists rarely crosses into literary fiction, but Elizabeth Strout chose to do that in her novel titled, Anything Is Possible, because she had more to say about Lucy Barton. Strout brought Lucy back in this volume of connected stories, alongside some new and old characters. Strout’s prose is constructed with great care, and the depth of character development brought me great pleasure. Things are not as they appear, and that’s the making of a fine work of fiction. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Anything Is Possible from amazon.com.

The American Spirit: Who We Are and What We Stand For

Inspiration. Readers looking for some hopeful and optimistic messages from a wise historian should consider reading David McCullough’s book titled, The American Spirit: Who We Are and What We Stand For. This volume gathers speeches that McCullough has given over the past quarter-century, many of them commencement addresses at colleges and universities. I found his spirit contagious and each of the speeches provides heavy doses of inspiration. Whether you’ve attended a commencement this year or not, as participant or observer, and no matter how much concern you have about the current divisions in American life, there’s a positive message that will match or exceed whatever has inspired you lately. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The American Spirit from amazon.com.

The Stars Are Fire

Resilience. Readers who enjoy those novels that can immerse one into a particular place and time alongside an interesting cast of characters with complicated relationships should consider reading Anita Shreve’s novel titled, The Stars Are Fire. Set on the coast of Maine in 1947, Shreve focuses on protagonist Grace Holland, a young mother of two with a third on the way. Grace’s Husband, Gene, has withdrawn from intimacy in their relationship, to Grace’s chagrin. A huge fire destroys the town, and Shreve presents the variety of ways in which the characters are resilient, and provide support for each other. Shreve multiplies the ways in which Grace’s resilience is tested, and how Grace finds ways to thrive. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Stars Are Fire from amazon.com.

Testosterone Rex: Myths of Sex, Science, and Society

Dethroned. Any debater will be thrilled to have Cordelia Fine as a member of the team. In her book titled, Testosterone Rex: Myths of Sex, Science, and Society, Fine debunks many false theories about differences between the sexes. Fine dethrones testosterone as the defining factor in behavior and in delineating gender differences. I’m no expert in the science Fine uses for her arguments, but I found her prose entertaining and interesting. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Testosterone Rex from amazon.com.

Dead Man Switch

Vulnerable. Fans of action thrillers will be pleased that Matthew Quirk has reprised protagonist John Hayes for a second novel titled, Dead Man Switch. Hayes and three dozen friends are part of Cold Harvest, a covert paramilitary group. Hayes has allowed his reputation to be tarnished to reduce the vulnerability of his family to retaliation. The plot momentum involves the execution of a step by step plan to liquidate the members of Cold Harvest, and Quirk keeps the action constant, and the twists exciting. Fans will be pleased that even after this exciting installment, John Hayes’ work is not yet done. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Dead Man Switch from amazon.com.

Number 11

Elevenses. I stopped counting how many times the number eleven appeared in Jonathan Coe’s eleventh novel which is aptly titled, Number 11. There are a lot of them. Fans of Coe will be delighted that this is a sort-of sequel to The Winshaw Legacy. New readers will find fine writing, confusing or absent transitions, interesting characters, especially Allison and Rachel, and comedy and satire about our contemporary society. I enjoyed Coe’s wit, his sharp social observations, and his well-written prose. Readers who enjoy literary fiction and can tolerate abrupt transitions are those most likely to enjoy this novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Number 11 from amazon.com.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Books for Living

Reflective. I read Will Schwalbe’s book titled, Books for Living, because I was curious to explore the reflections of someone about their reading life. I know why I read, and I wondered how much resonance there might be between my reflections about my reading life and Schwalbe’s. On many pages of this well-written book, I found the insights, reasons, and perspective well-aligned with my own experience. I was delighted when I found similarities, and pleased when I saw differences. Any reader interested in taking some time away from reading to reflect about reading, can use this book as a guide, and come away from it with a few more books to add to one’s reading queue. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Books for Living from amazon.com.

Moonstone: The Boy Who Never Was

Influenza. I admired Sjón’s efficiency in drawing readers into an unfamiliar world in his novel titled, Moonstone: The Boy Who Never Was. Using fewer than two hundred pages, Sjón presents the alienation of being a gay man in 1918 in Reykjavik, Iceland. He adds the tension relating to the war and to the influenza epidemic both about to arrive in that city. He then combines the two elements and shows the ways in which the flu creates in the city the same feelings that preoccupy the protagonist: alienation and fear. Rating: Three-star (It’s ok) Click here to purchase Moonstone from amazon.com.

The Killing Kind

Gruesome. Readers who love action thrillers are those most likely to enjoy the fast pace of Chris Holm’s novel titled, The Killing Kind. Protagonist Michael Hendricks was trained as an assassin. Presumed dead after a false flag mission, he decides to leave his old life behind and find redemption of sorts by becoming a killer of killers. He’d charge clients ten times the price a hitman was being offered to kill the client and for that price would kill the hitman. Holm takes readers through the paces on what that looks like in gruesome detail, then fills in the backstory about Hendricks while keeping plot momentum rolling. If this sounds like your idea of fun reading, go for it. Rating: Three-star (It’s ok) Click here to purchase The Killing Kind from amazon.com.

Six Scary Stories

Quick. Master storyteller Stephen King judged a writing competition to coincide with the release of one of his books. He found so many of the stories to be pleasurable that he convinced his publisher to put six of them together in a collection titled, Six Scary Stories. Readers who enjoy scary stories are those most likely to enjoy this selection that is quick to read and packed with chills. I parceled out one story a night for a week, and while I slept soundly, my mind did race a bit more than usual during that week. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Six Scary Stories from amazon.com.

Mary Russell's War and Other Stories of Suspense

Fillers. The nine stories in the collection by Laurie R. King titled, Mary Russell’s War and Other Stories of Suspense, fill in gaps in what readers know about the world of Sherlock Holmes and Mary Russell. From Mary’s youth to her old age, King connects pieces of stories in ways that will delight fans of this series. I especially enjoyed the stories set during World War I. King has done a wonderful job creating the character Mary Russell and updates Sherlock in ways that will delight many readers. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Mary Russell’s War from amazon.com.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Cork Dork

Taste. Thanks to Bianca Bosker’s lively writing, I was thoroughly entertained while reading her book titled, Cork Dork: A Wine-Fueled Adventure Among the Obsessive Sommeliers, Big Bottle Hunters, and Rogue Scientists Who Taught Me to Live for Taste. This book could have gone wrong at any turn. It might have been so geeked up with wine terminology that it would appeal only to wine snobs. Bosker avoids that trap but still takes wine outsiders behind the curtain. She could have made the book so much about herself that hers would be the only lens through which we would understand the life of a sommelier. Instead, she uses her experience as the bait to lead us into the passion and obsession of a large cast of interesting characters. Whether you know a lot about wine, a little, or nothing at all, you will learn something about taste from reading this interesting book. And as you already know, there’s no accounting for taste. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Cork Dork from amazon.com.

American War

Uncivil. Readers who love a thick and hearty dystopian soup are those most likely to enjoy Omar El Akkad’s debut novel titled, American War. Set in the last quarter of the 21st century, the novel presents a depressing picture: a second American civil war; the damage from climate change; life in an internment camp; foreign powers exploiting American weakness; and huge loss of life from a plague. Akkad uses protagonist Sarat Chestnut as the instrument through which we learn about life in this uncivil society, and Akkad portrays the ability of one individual to make a huge difference in the world. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase American War from amazon.com.

Earthly Remains

Consequences. Donna Leon continues to develop her beloved and recurring protagonist Commissario Guido Brunetti in a novel titled, Earthly Remains, the twenty-sixth installment in this mystery series. A kind, but rash act sets the stage for a break from work for Guido. His wife, Paola, finds the perfect spot for his break: a villa on Sant’Erasmo, owned by one of her relatives. As Guido recuperates, he rows in the lagoon with a villa’s caretaker, Davide Casati, who had once rowed competitively with Guido’s father. With great plotting skill, Leon draws us into the depths of the story, revealing gradually the long term consequences of choices made over time. Readers who love this series are those most likely to be pleased with this addition. New readers can start here or anywhere and be delighted with interesting characters and the joy of a mystery solved. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Earthly Remains from amazon.com.

The Stranger in the Woods

Solitude. Had I been reading a novel featuring the character Chris Knight, I would have set it aside concluding that no person could be as odd as Chris. Having read about the life of Chris Knight in Michael Finkel’s non-fiction book titled, The Stranger in the Woods, I have a new understanding about solitude and how strong the desire for solitude can be in a person’s life. Knight spent twenty seven years living alone in the Maine woods without contact with other humans. Any reader longing for a bit more solitude will come away from this book with the insight that one can get too much of any good thing. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Stranger in the Woods from amazon.com.

My Italian Bulldozer

Change. Frequent readers of any books by Alexander McCall Smith will find some common elements in his stand alone novel titled, My Italian Bulldozer. There’s great optimism, a philosophy rooted in goodness and kindness, and joy in living. Protagonist Paul Stewart is a food writer whose girlfriend dumped him for a relationship with her personal trainer. Bummed by this change, he accepts his editor’s advice that he should finish his Tuscany book onsite. After his rental car experience becomes entangled in Italian bureaucracy, he accepts the kindness of a new acquaintance who secures him the last available vehicle to rent: a bulldozer. Paul accepts the change with a spirit of adventure, and the novel continues to riff on the ways in which change transforms us. A dose of Smith’s philosophy appears in a reflection on p.229: “Sometimes, you know, good things have to be done – they just have to be done. And most of us – myself included – are too timid to do them. Fortunately, there are brave people who are prepared to take the risk, who do those things, often in such a way that nobody can see them. They say, The world doesn’t have to be the way it is, we can change it. That’s what they say – and then they do it.” As always, I finished a Smith novel feeling wonderful about human nature and all that is good in the world. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase My Italian Bulldozer from amazon.com.

For Time and All Eternities

Bound. The third Linda Wallheim mystery by Mette Ivie Harrison is titled, For Time and All Eternities. This time out Harrison is presenting her thoughts on marriage, religion and gender through the lens of Linda, a Mormon bishop’s wife and mother of five living boys and a daughter who did not survive birth. Linda’s son, Kenneth, is engaged to be married to a woman named Naomi who grew up in a polygamous family. Linda and her husband, Kurt, visit the family compound to meet the future in-laws. Before long, a murder follows, and Linda is in the thick of things. I think I am tiring of this protagonist, as I found this novel plodded long more heavily than the previous ones. There’s a mystery here for those readers who enjoy that genre, along with views about Mormonism that will appeal to readers curious and interested in that religion. Rating: Three-star (It’s ok) Click here to purchase For Time and All Eternities from amazon.com.

Banana Cream Pie Murder

Cliffhanger. The twenty-first novel in the Hannah Swensen mystery series by Joanne Fluke is titled, Banana Cream Pie Murder. Hannah returns to Lake Eden from her honeymoon to solve a murder. Fans of the series will enjoy the return of a familiar cast of characters, the usual compilation of recipes, and a heavy dose of Minnesota-nice. While the case plodded along a lot until the dramatic climax, Fluke also leaves readers with a cliffhanger, causing fans to anxiously await the next installment. I read these novels for the vicarious eating of sweet deserts on every page. Shame on me for not baking any of these treats. Rating: Three-star (It’s ok) Click here to purchase Banana Cream Pie Murder from amazon.com.

Huck Out West

Pards. When I was a teenager reading Huck Finn, the dialect conflicted so much with my Brooklyn patois that I struggled with understanding lots of sentences in the novel. The dialect in Robert Coover’s novel titled, Huck Out West, rang true to the original as Coover presents to readers an adventure set up by Twain: to escape civilization and head West. I re-read the original Twain before opening this sequel, and the refresher prepared me for the dialogue and the potential next steps for the renowned cast of characters. Both novels are stories about friendship, pards, as they would say in Coover’s version. The original is a great novel, and Coover’s sequel will entertain many readers who love these characters, that time period, and the sheer adventure. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Huck Out West from amazon.com.

Strange Tide

Water. Water and the Thames play important roles in the latest mystery in the Bryant & May Peculiar Crimes Unit series by Christopher Fowler. Titled, Strange Tide, this novel requires all the skills of the PCU at a time when they are under scrutiny, and their reliance on Arthur Bryant is diminished because he seems to be losing his mind. The crime is bizarre, Bryant’s hallucinations are delightful, and the ultimate solution is satisfying. Fans of the series will be delighted with this installment. New readers can start here or anywhere in the series and find great character-based crime fiction. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Strange Tide from amazon.com.

The Universe in Your Hand

Teacher. On the rare occasions when physics comes up in conversation, my wife remarks that during our lifetime the study of physics and theology have come closer together. I always nod when she says that, but I don’t know what she means, and since she’s the theologian, I’m confident that she knows of what she speaks. Every now and then I want to read some science books written for a general audience, and I was thrilled with the ways in which Christophe Galfard taught me physics in his book titled, The Universe in Your Hand. Instead of explaining, Galfard asks us to imagine ourselves in different parts of the universe. I was enchanted by this book, and encourage those readers interested in things like black holes, string theory and dark matter to consider this book. It will amp up your conversations, but probably not with my wife, nor with my neighbor who chairs a university’s physics department. Readers who attended a Physics for Poets class are those most likely to enjoy reading this book. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Universe in Your Hand from amazon.com.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

The Hearts of Men

Scout. Nelson Doughty is the protagonist of Nickolas Butler’s finely written novel titled, The Hearts of Men. Butler presents Nelson’s life and relationships in the context of being the quintessential boy scout: he is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent. What that means as a teenager varies greatly from what it means when he is in Vietnam, from what it means when he serves for decades as Scoutmaster at a summer boy scout camp in Northern Wisconsin. Butler draws readers into Nelson’s life through his lifelong friendship with Jonathan and especially through Jonathan’s son, daughter-in-law and grandson. This is by no means a novel about scouting. It offers the deepest insight into human behavior, the rudder of conscience about good and evil, and the meaning of bravery. Butler writes fine prose backed by insight into our human condition. Nelson is one of those characters who help us understand what it is like to lead a good life. Rating: Five-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Hearts of Men from amazon.com.

All Grown Up

Andrea. Every stone seems turned in the life of Andrea Bern as presented by Jami Attenberg in a finely written novel titled, All Grown Up. This novel is an intense character study that moves back and forth in time as we are presented a complete picture of the very interesting protagonist, Andrea Bern. Humor and heartbreak are often within a few sentences of each other. Andrea is single, needy and needed. The novel explores the question of what it means to be an adult, and the path toward that answer brought me great reading pleasure. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase All Grown Up from amazon.com.

A Great Place to Have a War: America in Laos and the Birth of a Military CIA

Momentum. I am often humbled by the extent to which I think I am well-informed and then get walloped by the impact of something that happened under my nose and the degree to which I was oblivious or dismissive. A friend suggested I read Joshua Kurlantzick’s book titled, A Great Place to Have a War: America in Laos and the Birth of a Military CIA. I consider myself well-informed about the Vietnam War, and the operations in Cambodia, and thought I was somewhat aware of operations in Laos. Thanks to Kurlantzick, I now understand how significant Operation Momentum in Laos was and how the CIA’s wider military operations began in that country and became a key component of American foreign policy from then on. Kurlantzick writes about all the secrecy of extensive and expensive American activities in Laos under the administrations of Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon. He tells the story of the key players: Vang Pao, the Hmong leader, Bill Lair, a CIA operative, Ambassador Bill Sullivan and a contractor named Tony Poe. Readers interested in public policy, especially foreign policy are those most likely to appreciate this finely written book. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase A Great Place to Have a War from amazon.com.

The Inheritance

Scientists. What has taken me so long to break into the Charles Lenox mystery series by Charles Finch? Perhaps it is knowing that if I like one novel in a series, I’m likely to read each subsequent installment, and that can tend to clog the reading queue. Alas, the queue will be clogged in the future now that I have read the tenth installment in the Lenox series, a novel titled, The Inheritance. Protagonist Charles Lenox is a private detective. In London in 1877, Lenox receives a request for help from a Harrow schoolmate, Gerald Leigh, who has become a renowned scientist. Leigh’s Harrow tuition was paid by an anonymous benefactor, and that unsolved mystery stoked Lenox’ early interest in detective work. Leigh has inherited a significant sum and that brought him to London from his scientific work in France. With great skill, Finch takes readers through twists, turns, red herrings and dead ends, while presenting an interesting cast of characters, including professional and amateur scientists. Lenox and his partners are also wrapped up in another case that leads to dramatic consequences. I was entertained by this novel from beginning to end, and I am likely to become a loyal reader of this series. Readers who enjoy historical and crime fiction are those most likely to appreciate this novel and this series. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Inheritance from amazon.com.

The Idiot

Learning. Readers who love language, sharp wit and finely written literary fiction are those most likely to enjoy reading Elif Batuman’s novel titled, The Idiot. Protagonist Selin arrives at Harvard in 1995 ready to learn whatever is there to be learned. Batuman finds ways to draw readers into the experience of uncertainty as Selin’s choices lead to other choices and to interesting consequences and experiences. All learning involves some amount of confusion, and the resolution of that comes with knowledge and insight. We join Selin on her journey at Harvard and during a summer in Europe and become caught up in her confusion, love and anxiety and with her tragic fate: becoming a writer. Worse things could have happened. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Idiot from amazon.com.