Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Bluebird, Bluebird

Restoration. Almost every character in Attica Locke’s finely written novel titled, Bluebird, Bluebird, is involved in some form of restoration. Protagonist and black Texas Ranger Darren Matthews finds himself under suspicion for the murder of a white drug dealer and he longs to restore his reputation. A black lawyer from Chicago drives to East Texas to restore his father’s guitar by putting it in the hands of a former band member, but he is then killed. Geneva Sweet wants restorative justice for the unsolved murder of her husband, and a wealthy white landowner wants Geneva’s property to be restored to the longtime holdings of his family. Every character is finely drawn and complex, and Locke’s prose is lyrical, while never deviating from telling a story that will engage every reader. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase Bluebird Bluebird from amazon.com.

The Friend

Comfort. Dog lovers will be delighted to read Sigrid Nunez’ novel titled, The Friend. The narrator remains unnamed, but the Great Dane that enters her life unexpectedly has a name that suits him perfectly: Apollo. Apollo was the dog of the narrator’s mentor, a fellow writer and lifelong friend. None of the three wives of the late writer wanted to live with Apollo whose confusion at the author’s disappearance made him seem depressed. The narrator deals with her grief by taking Apollo into her small apartment where dogs are not allowed. They provide comfort to each other and comedy for many who see this unlikely couple together. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Friend from amazon.com.

An American Marriage

Complicated. I’ve been married for only forty-four years, so I still have a lot to learn about the complications of living with another person in the commitment of marriage. Tayari Jones presents readers with the story of a marriage under great strain and draws us into the lives of characters both different from ourselves and very similar. Her novel titled, An American Marriage, uses protagonists Celestial and Roy as figures to display all the issues related to contemporary marriage, including jobs, in-laws, children and what we do and fail to do for the other partner in a relationship. Roy’s unjust incarceration provides momentum for the plot, but where Jones soars in this novel is in how she makes the particular issues of one marriage universal. All relationships are complicated, and Jones lays out that complexity for all to see. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase An American Marriage from amazon.com.

Happiness

Hope. Fiction fans can select any number of elements to enjoy in Aminatta Forna’s novel titled, Happiness. Those readers who appreciate lyrical prose will find deep satisfaction. Readers who enjoy interesting and complex characters will find protagonists Jean and Attila packed with broad life experience, compassion and wisdom. Readers looking for a novel that will lift up one’s spirits will find the message of hope in this novel to be inspiring. Intelligent readers will appreciate the plot complexity and the emotional depth of multiple characters. Our lives are often more interconnected with others and with our ecosystem that we usually acknowledge. This novel is a reminder of the ties that bind us and the ways that chance can transform our lives. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase Happiness from amazon.com.

It's Even Worse Than You Think: What the Trump Administration Is Doing to America

Destruction. Nothing particular surprised me while reading David Cay Johnston’s book titled, It's Even Worse Than You Think: What the Trump Administration Is Doing to America. By the time I finished the book, I felt like I had been in a car crash. Johnston details many of the ways in which actions during the first year of the Trump administration consistently damaged many of the foundations of our democracy. Trump’s indifference to conflicts of interest or norms and standards will have lasting consequences. I could have skipped living through a replay of the first Trump year, but I’m glad I read someone else’s perspective about what I observed. It’s not necessarily worse than I think, but it has been destructive. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase It’s Even Worse Than You Think from amazon.com.

The Afterlives

Mortality. The protagonist of Thomas Pierce’s novel titled, The Afterlives, Jim Byrd, had died briefly at age thirty when his heart stopped. Now acutely aware of his mortality, and a bit disturbed that he saw neither tunnel nor light while dead, Jim delves into wondering what happens after we die. Note that the title uses the plural. Pierce sets readers up for an exploration of this subject in ways that will lead to laughter at several turns. If anyone has ever told you that you don’t seem to be all together there, after reading this novel you may have an answer why that’s the case. We’re all never really all here. Part of us is someplace else. Pierce’s creativity makes the novel remain fun to read, and the holograms were a special treat. I was entertained. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Afterlives from amazon.com.

White Houses

Lovesong. One white house is a tiny building on Long Island. The other is at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C. One protagonist is Eleanor Roosevelt. The other is Lorena Hickok. By choosing to tell the story of this relationship in novel form in her book titled, White Houses, Amy Bloom is able to avoid footnotes and connect the dots is a well-documented friendship between Eleanor and Hick. Bloom’s prose makes the whole book a love song. The places where Eleanor and Hick spend time together are described with finely written lyrical prose, and the intimate relationship is presented with great affection for both protagonists. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase White Houses from amazon.com.

theMystery.doc

Life. Prepare to haul around the five pound 1,600+ page novel titled, theMystery.doc, by Matthew McIntosh for several weeks. I started and finished this book with admiration and confusion. If I had to answer a question about the subject of the novel, I would ramble about it being about life, and identity, and God, and spirituality, and loss, and laughter, and writing. The form and structure of the book are unusual. There are lots of blank spaces, disconnected phrases, photos, asterisks by the dozens, and blank pages. Sometimes it took me a half hour to read fifty pages; other times I turned fifty pages within five minutes. Still, it takes a while to immerse oneself in a big book like this that includes a ribbon placeholder. When I closed the last page, I felt refreshed. I felt like I had a new understanding of the decade or so after 9/11. I felt, as always, that life itself is a mystery. Take a look at this novel and consider giving yourself over to it. I’m glad I surrendered myself to a form and structure that kept me off balance, just like the cover image, and just like life. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase themysterydotdoc from amazon.com.

Version Control

Physics. Intelligent readers who usually avoid any form of science fiction may join me in the pleasure of reading Dexter Palmer’s novel titled, Version Control. If I say this novel involves time travel, you are likely to say, “no thanks.” But you might be interested if I mention that the near future Palmer presents may be what’s scaring Elon Musk, you might be interested. If I mention the idea that avatars are becoming indistinguishable from real people, you might be intrigued. If I say that a physicist has been working on a causality violation device that has been funded by the government, you might read a few pages. If I tell you that old versions of life might be overwritten, I think that just might push you over the edge to consider reading this creative and clever novel. I’m glad I did. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Version Control from amazon.com.

Time Pieces

Ode. Ramble around the city of Dublin in your mind while reading John Banville’s personal reminiscences of his life there in a book titled, Time Pieces. The city was a special destination during his childhood when on his birthday, he and his mother would travel from their small town for a day in the city. The photos by Paul Joyce add to Banville’s writing, and gave a clear visual effect to supplement the text. Fans of Banville’s novels will enjoy the references to Quirke and what the places where Banville set him meant to the author. Readers who enjoy Dublin will be brought back to their own memories of that place through Banville’s fine writing about his own recollections. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Time Pieces from amazon.com.

Friday, March 9, 2018

The Kremlin's Candidate

Recipes. Russian interference in the United States has become a regular headline story. In the finale of the Red Sparrow Trilogy, a novel titled, The Kremlin's Candidate, author Jason Matthews focuses on that interference. Putin orders the murder of the CIA chief to set the stage for his replacement with a Russian mole. Reprised characters Dominika Egorova, the Russian spy secretly working for the US, and her lover, CIA agent Nate Nash, are placed in peril to prevent the mole from becoming the head of the CIA. Fans of spy thrillers are those readers most likely to enjoy this novel. I especially enjoyed all the references to food throughout the book, and the special reward: recipes for many of the dishes eaten. Bon app├ętit. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Kremlin's Candidate from amazon.com.

How Democracies Die

Norms. Two Harvard professors, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, have studied democracies around the world. In their book titled, How Democracies Die, they present a clinical assessment of the ways in which countries can lose democracy slowly following a number of different events and actions. I expected to read a Chicken Little diatribe about the crisis presented to the United States by President Trump. Instead, the book presents a dispassionate assessment of where we stand in relation to what has happened elsewhere. Any reader who dismisses the importance of norms should read this book and reconsider how important unwritten standards are to the maintenance of a free and democratic society. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase How Democracies Die from amazon.com.

Trumpocracy: The Corruption of the American Republic

Echo. After I finished reading David Frum's book titled, Trumpocracy: The Corruption of the American Republic, I started to wonder who else was reading it. I admit that I knew I would like the book because I was confident that Frum would provide a cogent and incisive case against President Trump. As a conservative and Republican, I wonder if Frum still maintains a receptive audience among those readers. I wonder how many Trump supporters will read this book. As we become comfortable in our respective partisan alliances, I wonder if there's a chance for the messages in one echo chamber to break into another. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Trumpocracy from amazon.com.

Sunburn

Plans. Crime fiction impresario Laura Lippman gives readers a memorable protagonist and a complex plot in her novel titled, Sunburn. My insight and understanding about Polly changed about every fifty pages. Like most of us, Polly looks out for number one, but the ways in which her planning and long-term patience accomplishes her goals were astounding. Lippman throws a wrench into Polly's plans when she meets Adam in a bar. One thing leads to another and twists and revelations abound. Fans of crime fiction are those readers most likely to enjoy this entertaining novel and will close the book feeling pretty good that someone like Polly has not been part of our life, so far. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Sunburn from amazon.com.

Fire Sermon

Fidelity. Clear out a book club evening to discuss Jamie Quatro's debut novel titled, Fire Sermon. Protagonist Maggie is struggling with being faithful to her husband, Thomas, as she desires to deepen her relationship with a colleague, James. If Maggie's growing desire for James were the dominant theme, this novel would have been unmemorable. Quatro adds Maggie's spirituality to the mix and places her behavior with James on a collision course with her desire to do what God wants her to do. Quatro maintains tension between Maggie's head and heart and conveys her deep longing. Falling in love turns life upside down, and Quatro spins readers with finely written prose as she presents interesting and complex characters struggling with making the right choices. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Fire Sermon from amazon.com.

Where the Past Begins: A Writer's Memoir

Memory. Amy Tan's memoir titled, Where the Past Begins: A Writer's Memoir, was all I expected and more. Tan shares memories of her life and focuses particular attention on writing. Readers are Tan's companions as she draws us into the process by which she uncovers deeply buried memories and uses her fine writing skills to describe those recollections in prose that is engaging and with the insight of a long life well-lived. I found the exchanges with her editor were an added delight in this book. Fans of Tan and readers who enjoy well-written memoirs are those most likely to appreciate this book. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Where the Past Begins from amazon.com.

Dunbar

Lear. The Hogarth Shakespeare series selected Edward St. Aubyn to offer readers a contemporary take on King Lear, which he does with great success in a novel titled, Dunbar. All the rage and family dynamics of the play are on display and power and money are given a modern and realistic focus, with the Lear figure, Dunbar, being the wealthy head of a global media conglomerate on the verge of being pushed out of his leadership role by the avarice of two of his daughters. I was well entertained by this novel and I will now reread the Shakespeare play as a treat. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Dunbar from amazon.com.

Stay With Me

Children. The emotional range of the characters presented in Ayobami Adebayo's debut novel titled, Stay with Me, will penetrate the defenses of the hardest hearted reader. There are losses and joys that reach the depths and heights of human experience. The centrality of children to the narrative will make this novel an ideal choice for a book club comprised of parents. The power of cultural expectations can be overwhelming, and Adebayo draws us into Nigeria and the expectations of that culture on those who live there. Fans of literary fiction are those readers most likely to enjoy reading this finely written novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Stay with Me from amazon.com.

A Casualty of War

Guns. The mother-son writing team named Charles Todd have brought nurse Bess Crawford back for the ninth installment in this series set during World War I. In the novel titled, A Casualty of War, Bess has met Captain Alan Travis, and she becomes caught up in a predicament as World War I comes to a close. Guns are involved. Most of the action in the novel takes place in England where Bess has returned on leave before returning to France to tend to soldiers who are still at or near the battlefields. The plot is interesting and complex, the characters are finely drawn, and the story is engaging. Fans of the series will be delighted to join the competent Bess in her latest exploits, and new readers can start here or anywhere to enjoy this series. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase A Casualty of War from amazon.com.

Typhoon Fury

Pills. All the formulaic elements of the Oregon Series of novels by Clive Cussler appear in the twelfth installment titled, Typhoon Fury. Juan Cabrillo and the crew of the Oregon perform heroic exploits against formidable adversaries, the cool technology works, and by the end of the novel, the good guys prevail, and the bad guys are defeated. Along the way, there's a thrilling plot about powerful pills from World War II and the discovery of artwork from an infamous theft. Another reliable action novel for those readers who enjoy a familiar formula. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Typhoon Fury from amazon.com.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Bone Music

Origin. I don't know how many books Christopher Rice plans for his Burning Girl series, but the first novel titled, Bone Music, lays a solid foundation on which to build multiple stories. Protagonist Charlotte Rowe is Burning Girl named for a formative event in her childhood. Having been raised by serial killers, her nurturing was minimal to say the least. She has thrown off the power of others to control her and thanks to receiving an experimental drug she has acquired a power that she calls bone music. This opening novel brings us to the moment after she has just used her power to fight evil and leads us to her choice of what to do next. Rating: Three-star (It's ok) Click here to purchase Bone Music from amazon.com.

How to Stop Time

Old. The creative premise that drives the plot of Matt Haig's novel titled, How to Stop Time, is that a small group of people in the world age at a rate much slower than the rest of us. Protagonist Tom Hazard is one such individual, and he's still around although quite old, given that he was born in 1581. Haig draws readers into Tom's long and interesting life including stints as a musician for Shakespeare, a jazz artist in 1920s Paris, and now as a history teacher at a high school. Readers may never again think about time and aging in the same way as before meeting Tom Hazard. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase How to Stop Time from amazon.com.

Endurance: A Year in Space, A Lifetime of Discovery

Choppy. Astronaut Scott Kelly presents two narratives in his book titled, Endurance: A Year in Space, A Lifetime of Discovery. A main part of the narrative explores the full year that he spent on the International Space Station. The second narrative is a memoir of his full life. Kelly shares all the big and small details of living for a year in space and makes that experience come alive. The memoir has an "aw shucks" quality to it that could lead many readers to think that if he could turn his life around and get one of the toughest and most competitive jobs in the world, so can any one of us. Rating: Three-star (It's ok) Click here to purchase Endurance from amazon.com.

The New Urban Crisis: How Our Cities Are Increasing Inequality, Deepening Segregation, and Failing the Middle Class—and What We Can Do About It

Clusters. Any readers interested in public policy should consider reading Richard Florida's book titled, The New Urban Crisis: How Our Cities Are Increasing Inequality, Deepening Segregation, and Failing the Middle Class-and What We Can Do About It. Whether you agree or disagree with his thinking, Florida offers a cogent analysis about modern American cities, and offers possible solutions to the problems he's observed. Those who have read Florida in the past will find familiar themes here. He clearly displays his preference for "urbanism for all" and the benefits of clustering to long term prosperity. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The New Urban Crisis from amazon.com.

Asymmetry

Inequality. We seem to be living during a time of great differences and conflicts that can become defining for the prospects and lives of individuals. Lisa Halliday presents several aspects of inequality in her novel titled, Asymmetry. Structured in three sections, the novel opens readers to pondering many different questions throughout the finely written narrative. In this first section, we see the unequal relationship between an elderly renowned male novelist and a young woman in her twenties who works in publishing. Halliday presents these two complex characters in ways that demand a reader question memory and the feelings behind the behaviors described. The second section presents an Iraqi American narrator who has been detained at airport border control in London. The final section presents an interview with the eminent writer after he wins a Nobel. Fans of literary fiction are those readers most likely to enjoy reading this finely crafted debut novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Asymmetry from amazon.com.

The Deceivers

Russians. The twelfth thriller novel by Alex Berenson to feature protagonist John Wells is titled, The Deceivers. Pulled away from family for another special assignment, Wells expects one high profile assignment, but receives a different one as President Duto sends Wells into a complicated thicket of plots by Russian operatives to take over the United States government. Fans of the series will enjoy this novel, as will any reader who enjoys thrillers with plot lines grabbed from current headlines. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Deceivers from amazon.com.

Barking to the Choir: The Power of Radical Kinship

Us. On any given page of Gregory Boyle's book titled, Barking to the Choir: The Power of Radical Kinship, readers are likely to laugh, smile or tear up, as he tells the stories of the people he has gotten to know in Los Angeles in his work at Homeboy Industries. The title refers to one of many malaprops that Boyle has heard from in the three decades of work he has done at Homeboy. This book is all about inclusion: we live in mutuality, and there should be no "other." Kinship means that everyone matters, and there is no exclusion from "us." The stories in this book are our stories, and the people are all part of our extended family. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase Barking to the Choir from amazon.com.

Thanks, Obama: My Hopey, Changey White House Years

Wit. I didn't expect to do more than skim a few pages of the book by former Obama speechwriter David Litt titled, Thanks, Obama: My Hopey, Changey White House Years. Instead, Litt's fine storytelling and wit carried me through, and before I knew it I had finished over three hundred well-written pages. There's often a "pinch me" quality behind Wit's story of coming of age in the White House. Whatever your politics, consider reading this book for the wit contained on its pages. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Thanks Obama from amazon.com.

Last Chance

Purpose. The second exciting novel in the Rains Brothers series by Gregg Hurwitz is titled, Last Chance. An alien invasion set off the plot in the first novel and in the current book, brothers Chance and Patrick Rains find out their purpose in life as well as why they were immune from the alien virus from an alien good guy: (p.149) "You and your brother's purpose is to die." No plot spoiler here: the excitement continues for those readers who love creepy and imaginative fiction. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Last Chance from amazon.com.

The Secret Life

Personalities. I am drawn toward finely written stories that bring out elements of interesting personalities and complex characters, whether in fiction or non-fiction. Three long form essays by Andrew O'Hagan have been assembled into a book titled, The Secret Life. One essay describes O'Hagan's relationship with Julian Assange on an assignment to ghostwrite Assange's autobiography. As expected, Assange is a fascinating and complex character, and O'Hagan unveils him to a reader's delight. A second essay explores identity theft and O'Hagan success in constructing for himself a new identity. The third essays involve bitcoin and the identity of its mysterious creator, Satoshi Nakamoto. O'Hagan describes the relationship he develops with Craig Wright, an Australian who claims he is Satoshi. Fans of good writing are those most likely to enjoy reading these essays. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Secret Life from amazon.com.