Wednesday, September 12, 2018

The Shakespeare Requirement

Slapstick. The wit in Julie Schumacher’s novel titled, The Shakespeare Requirement, tickled all my funny bones. Who knew that a university could be the ideal location for real slapstick humor? Any reader whose patience in meetings becomes strained will feel connected to parts of this book. The thankless role of a department chair falls to protagonist Jason Fitger, and the eccentric colleagues in the English department come alive on these pages. The buzzwords and antics of the administration and the successful Economics department kept me smiling, and what better name could Schumacher have chosen for the institution: Payne University? Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Shakespeare Requirement from amazon.com.

My Year of Rest and Relaxation

Sleep. Most psychiatrists would propose engagement with others as a way to deal with alienation, and many patients would consider that path. The young female protagonist of Ottessa Moshfegh’s novel titled, My Year of Rest and Relaxation, chooses another way to deal with her situation: sleep. I laughed at the ways in which she gets her very strange psychiatrist to prescribe loads of pills to help her sleep. The prose is so finely written and the narrative so perfectly crafted that despite the sleeping, there is a high energy maintained throughout the novel. When there are just a handful of pages left to read, we are snapped out of our own drugged state as Moshfegh delivers a perfect ending. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase My Year of Rest and Relaxation from amazon.com.

The Shortest Way Home

Sweet. The protagonist of Miriam Parker’s debut novel titled, The Shortest Way Home, is ready to complete her MBA in California and move to New York to take a great job for which she beat many worthy competitors. While Hannah is spending a weekend in Sonoma a new dream displaces the old one. Most young adults veer a bit on the path to finding one’s place in the world. Hannah pulls a full about face. However improbable her story, Hannah is a sweet character and Parker encourages readers to laugh with the consequences of Hannah’s actions and root for her dream to come true. Rating: Three-star (It’s ok) Click here to purchase The Shortest Way Home from amazon.com.

The Middleman

Disaffected. Fans of thrillers and plot turns are those readers most likely to enjoy Olen Steinhauer’s novel titled, The Middleman. A pied piper to the disaffected, Martin Bishop, taps into what those people want, and he bands them together into a movement called the Massive Brigade. The FBI, especially agent Rachel Proulx, is on the case, and Steinhauer uses her to dig deeply no matter where the trail leads. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Middleman from amazon.com.

Away with Words: An Irreverent Tour Through the World of Pun Competitions

Punderdome. I expected more puns in the book by Joe Berkowitz titled, Away with Words: An Irreverent Tour Through the World of Pun Competitions. The subtitle should have warned me that the content had more than just puns. I enjoyed spending time with Berkowitz on his journey to events like Punderdome. While I appreciate a good pun, I had no idea that pun competitions were even a thing. Berkowitz makes his own excursion into this world fun to read, and his descriptions of the major punners were a delight to read. Did I really reach the end of my brief review without making a pun? Rating: Three-star (It’s ok) Click here to purchase Away with Words from amazon.com.

Our Kind of Cruelty

Games. Fans of dark psychological fiction are those readers most likely to enjoy reading Araminta Hall’s novel titled, Our Kind of Cruelty. V and Mike have a relationship built around a game involving desire and an irregular line between a made-up sex game and reality. After V marries Angus, Mike believes this is a sham wedding and part of the extended game, so he remains in love with V and tries to suss the next move in the game. Hall draws readers into Mike’s troubled mind as the story grows ever darker. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Our Kind of Cruelty from amazon.com.

A Kind of Freedom

Suffering. Margaret Wilkerson Sexton’s finely written debut novel titled, A Kind of Freedom, is set in New Orleans from World War II until after Hurricane Katrina. Sexton presents the story through three well-developed characters: Evelyn, her daughter, Jackie, and Jackie’s son, T.C. Each generation suffers, sometimes in similar ways. Using fewer than three hundred pages, Sexton develops setting, character and story with great skill and insight. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase A Kind of Freedom from amazon.com.

Heads of the Colored People

Identity. A collection of short stories by Nafissa Thompson-Spires is titled, Heads of the Colored People. The stories are dark, funny, poignant and finely written. Thompson-Spires explores identity and vulnerability with great skill. She deals with the challenge of social media and violence and just what it means to be a person of color living in the United States today. There’s a blend of head and heart in each of these stories, and Thompson-Spires has insight into deep wisdom and a range of strong emotions. I enjoyed each story in this finely written collection. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Heads of the Colored People from amazon.com.

Give Me Your Hand

Friendship. In her novel titled, Give Me Your Hand, Megan Abbott presents the relationship between two women, Kit and Diane. Just when we begin to think we understand these women, things are not as they appear. Secrets have great power, and ambition can be a powerful force in life. Rivalry takes many forms. Abbott weaves all that together in ways that will remind all readers that life never proceeds in a straight line, and what you think is going on might be far from what’s happening. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Give Me Your Hand from amazon.com.

A Whispered Name

Substitute. I’m a sucker for novels that delve into moral complexity. One book in the Father Anselm series by William Broderick, a novel titled, A Whispered Name, explores the decisions made during wartime and the secrets and consequences that followed. One soldier substitutes himself for someone else, and decades later, Father Anselm unravels the reasons why, and the role of his mentor in what happened. I expected to be reading a quick mystery, and instead I slowed down as the discernment of right from wrong got muddied, and I paid close attention, to great satisfaction. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase A Whispered Name from amazon.com.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Children of Blood and Bone

Magic. Why did I wait months before I read the debut novel by Tomi Adeyemi titled, Children of Blood and Bone? I spent several delightful hours immersed in this story of a fight for the restoration of magic and a way of life. There are well-developed interesting characters, and a plot that maintained tension for over five hundred pages. I loved the characters and the story and look forward to the second book in this series. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Children of Blood and Bone from amazon.com.

Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics

Insights. While I hate the staging of Shakespeare’s plays in non-traditional ways, I love the ways in which those settings reveal the wisdom and insights about life from the plays that cross all time periods. In his book titled, Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics, Stephen Greenblatt focuses on the ways in which Shakespeare presented tyrants and populism in different plays. With many countries run by autocrats today, the insights about behavior and institutions from this book are timely. Teachers can use this book as another example of why Shakespeare is relevant, and why students should experience a wide range of these works. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Tyrant from amazon.com.

Deviate: The Science of Seeing Differently

Perceptions. Neuroscientist Beau Lotto blows my mind. In his book titled, Deviate: The Science of Seeing Differently, he explains how our brains have not evolved to see things accurately. It’s all about perceptions, and Lotto explains how that part of science operates. Finally, we can appreciate why others see things differently! Perception is subjective. The book is packed with optical illusions that support Lotto’s messages. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Deviate from amazon.com.

A Taste for Vengeance

Complete. The thirteenth installment in the Bruno, Chief of Police series by Martin Walker is titled, A Taste for Vengeance. This time out, the Dordogne village of St. Denis revels in the success of girls’ rugby and is threatened by IRA criminals in the neighborhood. In the middle of everything is Bruno, who has gotten a promotion. What Walker does so well in this novel and in the series is allow readers to see this interesting protagonist in all aspects of his interesting life: as policeman, coach, cook, friend, lover, etc. During the course of the same day, we spend time with Bruno in each of those roles, and also caring for his dog and riding his horse. Make yourself something tasty to eat, pair a wine, and sit down to read this novel, or any of the ones in the series. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase A Taste for Vengeance from amazon.com.

Damnation Island: Poor, Sick, Mad, and Criminal in 19th-Century New York

Grim. I will never look at the East River and Roosevelt Island in the same way again, thanks to reading Stacy Horn’s book titled, Damnation Island: Poor, Sick, Mad, and Criminal in 19th-Century New York. It was a grim time for lots of people on the island when they were living in prisons, an insane asylum, hospitals and an almshouse. This is a bleak tale of horrific conditions for the most vulnerable members of our community. While the subtitle makes it seem as if there is an old story, conditions remained horrific through the second half of the 20th century. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Damnation Island from amazon.com.

Good Trouble

Vulnerability. Great writers tell us things about ourselves and the world in which we live that seem obvious only after the telling. In the eleven stories of the collection by Joseph O’Neill titled, Good Trouble, there’s great insight into our modern condition and our struggles. I loved the story in which one character was unable to get anyone to give him a reference so he could rent in a New York City co-op. Nothing could better describe this aspect of being solitary in a crowded world. O’Neill explores contemporary loneliness and isolation and holds a mirror and a magnifying glass for us to examine modern life and our many individual insecurities and vulnerabilities. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Good Trouble from amazon.com.

Last Stories

Finale. The ten short stories by William Trevor in the collection titled, Last Stories, are a joy to read. Trevor died in 2016, and his artistry is on display in each of these stories. He had the ability to let us glimpse into the lives of others with such insight that within a few pages we can appreciate a complete life. Trevor narrows into something that seems small with such precision and grace that from this intensity, much is revealed. We look to fine literary fiction to tell us stories about who we are. This collection does just that. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Last Stories from amazon.com.

Cloudbursts

Range. Fans of short stories can devour forty-five well-written ones in a collection by Thomas McGuane titled, Cloudbursts. I marveled at the range of characters, place and situation that McGuane offers. This is solid writing by a real craftsman. Within all the constraints of short fiction, every story is complete: we understand these people, their situations, and the range of behavior that they exhibit. There are no clunkers here. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Cloudbursts from amazon.com.

The Last Cruise

Adrift. After not too many pages into Kate Christensen’s novel titled, The Last Cruise, it became easy to anticipate how different characters are likely to behave when placed under stress. Christensen doesn’t disappoint; we see a wide range of human behavior by a large cast of interesting characters. A vintage ocean liner is taking a final voyage and the guests are being treated to an experience like one would have experienced onboard in 1950. With that backdrop, we glimpse at characters above and below decks. After engine failure sends them adrift, the true colors of each character are revealed. Once adrift, things remain unsettled through the last page. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Last Cruise from amazon.com.

Bearskin

Trifecta. James A. McLaughlin builds three elements simultaneously in his debut novel titled, Bearskin. First, he tells a terrific story that gets better as readers engage with the plot. Second, his descriptive language uses beautiful prose that makes the setting, a remote area in the Virginia mountains, come alive. Finally, he develops a protagonist, Rice Moore, as a complex character who demands solitude and has chosen what he thinks is a perfect hiding place as he works as a caretaker for a large private landholder. Life has a way of disrupting one’s plans, and McLaughlin keeps unraveling a story we want to hear as he uses beautiful language and lets Rice develop relationships that lead him to actions with consequences. I loved every minute on the mountain with Rice. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase Bearskin from amazon.com.