Friday, September 13, 2019

The Institute

Evil. If the words that come to your mind when you think of author Stephen King are “horror,” “supernatural,” or “creepy,” and you avoid reading him because that’s not the reading experience you’re looking for, take another look at this talented writer and his new novel titled, The Institute. As always, King tells a great story. The characters are interesting, complex, and they resemble us or people we recognize. The new novel starts so gently that some readers may feel lulled into a state of calm. While we are feeling calm, children with special talents are being abducted and abused, locked in a Maine facility that gives the book its title. King explores the evil inside those characters who become used to abusing children to support some distant government official’s notion of a greater good. Once the use of a child has been completed, the child is destroyed. King lays all this out, then gives the children agency, and lets them use their power. Both good and evil can be powerful and King offers readers a well written story that resonates for our time. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase The Institute from amazon.com.

A Philosophy of Ruin

Nihilism. What’s it all about, Alfie? Philosophy should help steer us toward a deeper understanding of the meaning of life. In his debut novel titled, A Philosophy of Ruin, Nicholas Mancusi offers a brisk and exciting narrative that hovers around what happens if one’s philosophy is nihilism. If life is meaningless, how would we live? Protagonist Oscar Boatwright is a philosophy professor whose life has begun to unravel. Mancusi pulls readers into caring for Oscar and other characters as they struggle. Often dark, at times funny, the novel propels readers toward an expected ending. Mancusi writes with great skill and many readers after enjoying this initial outing will look forward to more fine prose from this author. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase A Philosophy of Ruin from amazon.com.

Their Little Secret

Connections. The fifteenth Tom Thorne mystery by Mark Billingham is titled, Their Little Secret. Fans of the series will delight in Thorne’s flaws and mistakes in this novel and will appreciate his partnership with DI Nicola Tanner. The mystery plot will engage all fans of this genre, and few readers will see all the twists and turns before they arrive on the page. The characters are complex and interesting, and Billingham leads readers into just the right of empathy to make the situations understandable, yet still chilling. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Their Little Secret from amazon.com.

Bottle Grove

Monsters. There be monsters in Daniel Handler’s novel titled, Bottle Grove. The beasts are often human, despite the presence of foxes, including a human one named Reynard. Handler uses the tech environment of San Francisco as the backdrop for this comic dark view of contemporary life and marriage. There’s love and greed, and a lot of clunky prose on these pages. Every reader open to reflecting about the forces inside and outside us that bring us together or tear us apart will find something to appreciate from this novel. Rating: Three-star (It’s ok) Click here to purchase Bottle Grove from amazon.com.

Murder in Bel-Air

Mother. The nineteenth mystery novel by Cara Black featuring Aimée Leduc is titled, Murder in Bel-Air. Fans of the series will be satisfied with the return to Paris, and to the spunky Aimée who is caught between not being the mother she’d like to be and dealing with the hijinks set in motion by her own mother. Aimée seems to never slow down: running her business, raising her child, and being used by others to achieve their own ends. Readers who enjoy character-driven crime fiction are those most likely to enjoy this novel and this series. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Murder in Bel-Air from amazon.com.

Underland: A Deep Time Journey

Guide. Readers could find no better nature guide than Robert MacFarlane, and his book titled, Underland: A Deep Time Journey, takes us on a global tour of what is and has been beneath the surface of the earth. On one page we’re thinking about the moment of creation, on another we’re peering at cave paintings and thinking about that part of the past, and then we find ourselves wondering about our stewardship of the earth and what lies ahead for our planet. He takes us to the Paris catacombs and to a place where nuclear waste is stored. MacFarlane’s writing is as beautiful as the world he calls on us to notice. I haven’t experienced this much awe since reading Carl Sagan. Most readers will finish this book as I did: feeling a closer connection to those and what has come before us. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Underland from amazon.com.

Beyond Charlottesville: Taking a Stand Against White Nationalism

Racism. For those readers who can set aside partisan politics (there must still be at least a minyan of us left who can do that), former Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe’s book titled, Beyond Charlottesville: Taking a Stand Against White Nationalism, helps us reflect about racism in the United States and what to do about it. The death of Heather Heyer and two Virginia state troopers during the violent “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville grabbed national attention. McAuliffe describes that event from his perspective at the time as governor and calls on citizens to unite in a fight against racism, hate and extremism. Even if you read this book as a fierce partisan, consider what tangible steps you can take toward addressing racism in our divided nation whether you agree with McAuliffe or not. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Beyond Charlottesville from amazon.com.

Almost Midnight

Vacation. Maine Game Warden Mike Bowditch is on something of a busman’s holiday in the 10th installment of this series by Paul Doiron, a novel titled, Almost Midnight. Lots of characters from the earlier novel are back, including a wolf and dog hybrid, Shadow. As with the earlier novels, the protagonist is a complex and engaging character who’s easy for readers to like and root for. Doiron’s description of the Maine setting will make readers feel the places come alive, and the plots are consistently entertaining. While on vacation when Mike is asked to help a friend, his initial reaction is hesitation. Loyalty wins out, and readers set off with Mike on another rule-breaking exciting adventure. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Almost Midnight from amazon.com.

Sea Stories: My Life in Special Operations

Iterative. Retired US Navy Admiral William H. McRaven has written a terrific book titled, Sea Stories: My Life in Special Operations, about the thirty-seven years he served as a Navy SEAL. Each anecdote builds on the prior one in some form or another, supporting the iterative process of building on past experience. I recall talking to one of my bosses many years ago who was apprehensive about an important meeting. I calmed him with the reminder that all kinds of experiences brought him toward this meeting, and he is as prepared as he could possibly be. McRaven’s life was one layer of experiences built on another, and by the time a reader reaches the story of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, we know how he will approach this mission. Most readers will finish this book offering thanks to McRaven and the thousands of others whose valuable service deserves recognition and gratitude. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Sea Stories from amazon.com.

I Think You're Wrong (But I'm Listening): A Guide to Grace-Filled Political Conversations

Nuance. Political differences can divide families, churches, workplaces, and neighbors. Polarization has led many of us toward tribalism and to using shorthand that concludes that my team is all good and the other team is all bad. As a balm to heal any wounds from this polarization and a guide to moving ahead, consider reading a finely written and practical book by Sarah Holland (from the left) and Beth Silvers (from the right) titled, I Think You're Wrong (But I'm Listening): A Guide to Grace-Filled Political Conversations. Drawn on their personal relationship in exploring areas of difference on their weekly podcast, Pantsuit Politics. Holland and Silvers recognize that issues are often nuanced and can’t be summarized in a talking point. When we respect others, we listen to them, and when we choose to be gentle and patient, good things follow. The status quo in polarization is creating strangers and we can do better. When we listen and find values we hold in common, we can move beyond the divisions toward healing and acting in ways that serve the common good. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase I Think You’re Wrong from amazon.com.

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Grace Will Lead Us Home: The Charleston Church Massacre and the Hard, Inspiring Journey to Forgiveness

Ongoing. For most citizens, the tragedy at Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina in 2015 was one more in a series of violent episodes in recent years. Thanks to a finely written book by Jennifer Berry Hawes, titled, Grace Will Lead Us Home: The Charleston Church Massacre and the Hard, Inspiring Journey to Forgiveness, interested readers can understand the context and aftermath more thoroughly. The survivors and their families have stories that Hawes tells with great skill, and there are issues with Mother Emanuel church that I didn’t know about until I read this book. Fans of Charleston will appreciate the ways in which this book tells the story of how this fine community has engaged in a long healing process. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase Grace Will Lead Us Home from amazon.com.

One Good Deed

Archer. Prolific author David Baldacci tries something new in his novel titled, One Good Deed. Baldacci sets this novel in a different time period from his earlier novels. This time out, Baldacci sets the novel in 1949, and features a new protagonist, Aloysius Archer, who served in World War II and, as this novel opens, has been paroled from Carderock Prison, where he served time for a crime he didn’t commit. Directed to the small town of Poca City, Archer quickly gets the lay of the land, gets hired for a freelance job, and finds himself in the thick of events in this town that involve love and money and family. The plot is entertaining and the protagonist interesting. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase One Good Deed from amazon.com.

The Stone Circle

Digging. The eleventh Ruth Galloway mystery by Elly Griffiths is a novel titled, The Stone Circle. Both Ruth and DCI Nelson receive letters that remind them of a person important in their past who they assume is dead. Fans of the series will make many connections from earlier novels, while first-time readers (like me) may be a bit confused by what’s really going on. Bones are dug up and identification leads to reopening a cold case. Meanwhile, life in the present takes many dramatic shifts for both Ruth and Nelson whose ties seem to endure against all odds. Fans of character-driven crime fiction are those readers most likely to enjoy this novel and this series. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Stone Circle from amazon.com.

The Most Fun We Ever Had

Losses. I was primed to think favorably about Claire Lombardo’s debut novel titled, The Most Fun We Ever Had. Lombardo sets the novel in her hometown, Oak Park, Illinois, where I live now, and I’ve lived in this village longer than anyplace else. The gingko leaves on the cover are from a tree in Oak Park that plays an important role at multiple points in the novel. Because Lombardo presents a large ensemble of characters, this is a long novel as she never rushes to develop interesting characters and reveal their secrets, their loves and their losses. Lombardo moves us forward and backward in time as the narrative demands, and I found myself enjoying every new dimension more that the last. Every family has its ups and downs, and in this extended family we get to feel the loves and losses with depth and insight. Lombardo gives readers a messy family for our messy times. Patient readers are rewarded with embracing the fullness of life and the ways in which the answer to most questions involves love. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase The Most Fun We Ever Had from amazon.com.

Supper Club

Appetite. I found Lara Williams’ debut novel titled, Supper Club, to be very odd. A group of women formed a club at which they satisfy their appetites. The hungers are real and the ways in which desires are fulfilled kept me scratching my head, unsure whether to laugh or cry. I mostly laughed but recognized that I was reading about deep depression and the ways in which making connections with others in contemporary society can be difficult. Each of us engages with the world in a unique way. Protagonist Roberta is fully herself in this novel, and as we get to know her, we come to understand her engagement, no matter how different it is from our own. Williams’ prose is finely written, and I can say with certainty that I’ve never read a novel quite like this one. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Supper Club from amazon.com.

The Lager Queen of Minnesota

Sisters. I was unprepared to be blown away by J. Ryan Stradal’s novel titled, The Lager Queen of Minnesota. Many finely written novels hold up mirrors to human behavior in ways that offer great insight into our human condition. This novel does that in spades. Additionally, Stradal gently delves into family dynamics that involve estrangement, income inequality and the deep desire to work at doing a job that is recognized and rewarded. The dynamics between sisters Edith and Helen are revealed in gradual ways throughout the novel. One came to beer early in life, and the other later, in different ways. But don’t think of this as a book about beer. This is in the category of the finest novels: it’s an exploration of what it means to lead a good life. Since the novel is set in Minnesota, it’s no spoiler to reveal that leading a good life has something to do with being nice. Every few years there seems to be a novel that captures the issues of the day. For 2019, and for me, this is that novel. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase The Lager Queen of Minnesota from amazon.com.

The Great Successor: The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un

Insights. Despite the cheeky title of her book, The Great Successor: The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un, Anna Fifield is not writing a satire about the current leader of North Korea. Fifield’s extensive contacts and long experience in covering North Korea combine to provide great insights into Kim and his regime. The book describes the context in which Kim has thrived as a young leader, and how his actions have been more reasoned and reasonable that others claim. If like me, you were never inclined to sell Kim short, reading this book is likely to convince you that Kim’s future will be bright. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Great Successor from amazon.com.

If: The Untold Story of Kipling's American Years

Range. I never paid much attention to Rudyard Kipling’s writing, and I securely locked him into a box labeled irrelevant old white imperialists. Thanks to an interesting book titled, If: The Untold Story of Kipling’s American Years, by literature scholar Christopher Benfey, I know more about Kipling and think of him more highly. I had been clueless about Kipling’s time living in the United States, and the relationships he developed in the late 19th and early 20th century with a diverse group of people including Mark Twain, Henry and William James, Teddy Roosevelt and John Hay. While Kipling’s time living in Brattleboro, Vermont was brief, his influence on the United States was more than I expected, as was the influence of the US on him. Readers interested in this time period are those most likely to enjoy this book. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase If from amazon.com.

A Dangerous Man

Quick. The eighteenth Elvis Cole and Joe Pike novel by Robert Crais is titled, A Dangerous Man. After a routine bank transaction between teller Isabel Roland and Joe Pike, both their lives get complicated very fast. Joe watches Izzy get abducted from the sidewalk in front of the bank. It’s no spoiler that Joe rescues Izzy, but what happens to the abductors and where the story leads will delight those readers who like character-driven crime fiction. The plot moves fast, and the action seems constant. What could be dramatic in other lives becomes just another case for Joe and Elvis. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase A Dangerous Man from amazon.com.

A Particular Kind of Black Man

Home. The finely written debut novel by Tope Folarin titled, A Particular Kind of Black Man, may seem at first to be a familiar story of immigrant assimilation into the culture of the United States. It is that and much more. Protagonist Tunde Akinola can never feel quite “at home.” He never fit in to life among the Mormons in rural Utah, where his father’s work and skills were undervalued. After his mother left Utah to return to Nigeria, Tunde becomes more adrift. A move to Texas doesn’t improve the family’s fitting in. Years later, Tunde visits family in Nigeria and his memories of life are questions by different aspects of the life he thought he knew and remembered. Readers who appreciate literary fiction will enjoy Folarin’s prose and recognize that this short novel is about much more than another immigrant family trying to fit in. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase A Particular Kind of Black Man from amazon.com.