Friday, January 24, 2020

With All Due Respect: Defending America with Grit and Grace

Blunt. Nikki Haley’s memoir titled, With All Due Respect: Defending America with Grit and Grace, is a political novelty. She doesn’t speak out of school and settles few scores on these pages (one or two worthy targets get their comeuppance again, bless their hearts.) Based on timing, this is also not the opening salvo in a political campaign. It is a blunt appraisal of many contemporary issues, and a personal story about how Haley’s life experience and principles guided her actions in public life. Agree or disagree with her positions, but read her story with an open mind, willing to listen to a story of what made her the person she is today. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase With All Due Respect from amazon.com.

Spring

Growth. The third installment in Ali Smith’s quartet on the seasons is titled, Spring. This was the installment that I wanted to read first, but Smith surprised me with choosing Autumn as the opener. Spring is a season of surprises and of sprouting. We come to see the new growth of what we had planted and what arrived by unknown means. Smith shows the evidence of what we have planted in society: detention centers and the demonization of immigrants. Surrender to Smith’s take on contemporary life and dream with her on the pages of this finely written novel. This is us. This is now. I can’t wait for the final installment. Rating: Five-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Spring from amazon.com.

Impeach: The Case Against Donald Trump

Foreign. Neal Katyal is a Georgetown law professor who has represented both the United States and individual clients at the Supreme Court. Readers of his book titled, Impeach: The Case Against Donald Trump, may doubt his non-partisan claim at the beginning of the book, but those who read to the end, including the appendix, are likely to come away with a greater appreciation of the Constitution, the intentions of the Founders, and why the “perfect” phone call between Presidents Trump and Zelensky documents the kind of offense that merits the pursuit of impeachment and removal because of the specific request for foreign help by President Trump not to support the interests of the United States, but to assist in a re-election campaign. Katyal describes why the Founders were concerned with foreign interference, and why the impeachment remedy is appropriate, and why waiting for the next election is not appropriate. Open minded and informed citizens can read this short book and become better informed about what is at stake in 2020. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Impeach from amazon.com.

Galway Girl

Falcon. Protagonist Jack Taylor is back in the fourteenth novel by Ken Bruen to feature him. Titled Galway Girl, Jack finds himself the target of a team of young killers, led by a woman named Jericho. Bruen takes the bleak and darkens it, but don’t let that discourage you from visiting Galway. Each of the killers has a separate beef with Taylor. Just when I felt I had settled in with the old Jack Taylor, he up and leaves Galway briefly and learns to be a falconer. Bruen uses the falcon to great effect, and Jack soars like the bird in this novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Galway Girl from amazon.com.

The Lonely Hour

Intricate. The sixteenth Peculiar Crimes Unit novel by Christopher Fowler is titled, The Lonely Hour. Arthur Bryant is addled and brilliant as always. Partner John May makes a mistake that will have serious consequences, and even Arthur may be unable to get the PCU out of a jam. The title refers to 4a.m., the time when a killer does his dirty deeds. The plot is intricate, and the familiar characters will delight fans of this series. New readers can start here or anywhere and find finely written crime fiction with clever plots and a cast of complex and interesting characters. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Lonely Hour from amazon.com.

Genesis

Genealogy. The twelfth novel by Robin Cook to feature New York City medical examiners Laurie Montgomery and Jack Stapleton is titled, Genesis. As chief Medical Examiner, Laurie has her hands full, and in this installment, she has major personal issues to deal with as well. The theme in this novel involves the use of DNA and genealogical databases. Fans of medical thrillers are those readers most likely to enjoy this novel and this series. Rating: Three-star (It’s ok) Click here to purchase Genesis from amazon.com.

The Sacrament

Memory. What triggers our recollection of memories? In Olaf Olafsson’s novel titled, The Sacrament, the trigger for protagonist Sister Johanna, a French nun, is her return to Iceland. Two decades after her first investigation into allegations of clerical sexual abuse, a Vatican official from her past asks her to go to Iceland to investigate another allegation. With finely written prose, and insight into human nature, Olafsson draws readers into an examination of memory and secrets. The author sneaks us around the edges of Sister Johanna’s recollections as we learn all that he wants us to observe. Johanna shows readers how nuns inside the institutional Catholic church can be powerless in some respects and vital in others. While there is an examination of suffering in this novel, there’s also deep insight into the nature of love. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Sacrament from amazon.com.

All This Could Be Yours

Legacy. Is Jami Attenberg’s novel titled, All This Could Be Yours, just another tale of family dynamics? Yes and no. Paterfamilias Victor Tuchman lies dying, and daughter Alex goes to New Orleans to be with her mother, Barbra, and to uncover the secrets of Victor’s life. Alex’s brother, Gary, decides to stay in Los Angeles and not come to the deathbed. Victor’s legacy is complicated and takes different forms. Absent Attenberg’s finely written prose, the outline of the story would produce a big yawn in most readers. As the secrets are revealed, we understand the source and form of this family’s dysfunction. For some readers, me included, a depressing story about the Tuchman family can lift one’s spirits. We’re all messed up in some way or another, and we can survive most of what life’s throws at us. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase All This Could Be Yours from amazon.com.

Under Occupation

Resistance. In his novel titled, Under Occupation, Alan Furst pulls readers into Paris in 1942. Protagonist Paul Ricard is a novelist and through him Furst takes us into many aspects of how the French resistance operated while under Nazi occupation. Ricard was swept into the resistance as were others. Once inside, his assignments provide the momentum for this novel. Readers can feel the darkness of that time and place through Furst’s finely written descriptive prose. Fans of historical fiction, especially when set in this time period, are those most likely to enjoy this novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Under Occupation from amazon.com.

Now You See Them

Emma. My first exposure to Elly Griffiths’ Magic Men series is the fifth installment, a novel titled, Now You See Them. Set in 1964, former Brighton detective Emma is married to Superintendent Edgar Stephens and she feels unsettled at home with three kids. Girls have been disappearing, and Emma sees a chance to get back into the action. Conflict between mods and rockers provides a colorful backdrop. I was entertained from beginning to end and expect that other fans of crime fiction will enjoy this novel and this series. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Now You See Them from amazon.com.

Friday, January 10, 2020

Imaginary Friend

Biblical. There’s a battle between good and evil that rages throughout the seven hundred pages of Stephen Chbosky’s novel titled, Imaginary Friend. Readers can choose the lens through which one reads this book. The horror lens will focus attention on all of the truly gruesome scenes in the novel that will test the strongest stomachs for grisly images. The small town lens allows readers to focus on the cast of characters in a community who are weathering the normal ups and downs of life and who contain elements of good and evil within them. I chose the biblical lens in which protagonist Christopher can be viewed in a savior role and the roles of Eve and the Virgin Mary appear in the text. Chbosky focuses on the binds that hold us in fear and what it takes to be free. The devil is at play in the world and his wily ways entice us to align with him. Pick your lens and settle down for chills and frights in the woods and possibly take time to reflect on the ways in which your freedom is constrained and what you can do about that. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase Imaginary Friend from amazon.com.

The First Cell: And the Human Costs of Pursuing Cancer to the Last

Blunt. Experienced oncologist Azra Raza offers in her book titled, The First Cell: And the Human Costs of Pursuing Cancer to the Last, an informed and personal assessment of the state of cancer treatment. Her blunt conclusion is that we need to do a reset. We are wasting resources. Our cancer treatments come too late and do a lot of harm to healthy cells. We should refocus on early detection and prevention. Widespread and targeted late stage treatment has costs that she describes through cases presented in this book, including her husband’s leukemia. When I finished this book, I had the sense that this doctor knows her stuff, and that the President of the United States should appoint Raza to direct the allocation of cancer research funds from the government. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The First Cell from amazon.com.

Ninth House

Yale. If you have a high school junior looking at colleges this year, read Leigh Bardugo’s novel titled, Ninth House, before heading to the Yale campus. In her first novel for adults, prolific YA author Leigh Bardugo uses her personal memories of life at Yale to introduce readers to a strong female protagonist, Alex Stern. We get secret societies in spooky settings, both real to the New Haven campus, along with ghosts and magic. Some writers can’t quite blend the real and the fantastic, but Bardugo does that to great effect in this novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Ninth House from amazon.com.

The Land of Flickering Lights: Restoring America in an Age of Broken Politics

Earnest. Readers who care about American politics are those who will be rewarded by reading Michael Bennet’s book titled, The Land of Flickering Lights: Restoring America in an Age of Broken Politics. The US Senator from Colorado (and presidential candidate) weaves his personal story into his insider view of the divisive state of politics. His critique is factual and cogent. His assessment is knowledgeable, and his suggestions for change are reasonable. Bennet exudes earnestness on every page of this book, and whatever your political allegiances, you may find something worthwhile to consider after reading this book. Rating: Three-star (It’s ok) Click here to purchase The Land of Flickering Lights from amazon.com.

Bunny

Workshop. I’ve never been a fan of small group sharing. You know, everyone sits around in a circle and a variety of viewpoints are expressed. Samantha Heather Mackey is the protagonist of Mona Awad’s novel, Bunny, and she’s a scholarship student, an outsider in her MFA program at Warren University. A powerful clique in her fiction writing program call each other “Bunny” and workshop moves to a whole other level after Samantha is invited to join the clique. The prose is clever and sharp, and the novel will appeal to fans of finely written literary fiction. Just don’t make us sit in a circle and share. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Bunny from amazon.com.

The Volunteer

Abandoned. After most readers absorb the first dozen pages or so of Salvatore Scibona’s novel titled, The Volunteer, we are hooked. After I was clobbered by the reality of a father abandoning his son at an airport, I wanted to know what this was all about. After many more pages, across multiple generations in many different places, I began to get comfortable with the ways a life can go wrong and how we can abandon others and they can abandon us. The prose is finely written, and fans of literary fiction will find much to like in this novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Volunteer from amazon.com.

The Second Sleep

Awake. Things are not as they appear in Robert Harris’ novel titled, The Second Sleep. We’re told the year is 1468. Protagonist Christopher Fairfax is a young priest who has been sent by the bishop to a small village in Wessex, England, to conduct the funeral of Father Lacy, who spent many years as the village priest. This would be his first funeral as a priest, so Fairfax wanted to get it right. Thanks to Harris’ great plotting, we learn along with Fairfax about Father Lacy and as a result our eyes are opened to the real story in this novel. Harris knows how to tell a gripping story, and in this novel, he focuses us on the past, present and future. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase The Second Sleep from amazon.com.

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead

Blake. Every reader knows (or is) a character like Janina Duszejko, the protagonist of Olga Tokarczuk’s novel titled, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead. On some pages, Janina’s narration makes me laugh. I observe her translation of William Blake on another page (the book’s title comes from Blake), and step back several paces at her reaction to the death of her neighbor, whom she calls Big Foot. On some pages, I questioned her sanity, or checked in to verify my own. Janina loves animals more than people and her interactions with humans reflect that, while her cogent observations reveal her assessment of their characters. I’m a big fan of listening to eccentric voices, and not underestimating them. When more neighbors turn up dead, Janina writes to the police that the animals are pursuing justice. This novel is a perfectly paced thriller filled with superb writing and deep insight into human nature. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase Drive Your Plow from amazon.com.

Toil & Trouble

Witch. The latest memoir by Augusten Burroughs is titled, Toil and Trouble. His being a witch is one of the less strange aspects of this finely written and witty book. As with earlier books, he scrapes pieces of his life to reveal the power of love in our lives and the many ways in which we are all powerless. This memoir focuses on domestic life and his move to the country to an old house. He finds grist to mill with his terrific descriptive language in telling readers about hired workers, neighbors, dogs, storms, memories, storms, jewelry, diet and more. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Toil and Trouble from amazon.com.

What It Takes: Lessons in the Pursuit of Excellence

Discipline. In his book titled, What It Takes: Lessons in the Pursuit of Excellence, Blackstone chairman, CEO and co-founder Stephen Schwartzman shares the lessons he’s learned throughout his life. He describes his dreams and explains the discipline he exercised as he made those dream happen. His success in business has been extraordinary and his impact in philanthropy is huge and just beginning. No matter who you are or what you do, there’s something Schwartzman has to say in this book that will apply to you and will resonate. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase What It Takes from amazon.com.

Thursday, January 2, 2020

The Warehouse

Dystopia. I usually prefer novels about a bleak future to be set in a distant future time, not today or the near future. When I started reading Rob Hart’s satire titled, The Warehouse, I began to warm to a very dystopian take on contemporary American culture. A company named Cloud has become the dominant business enterprise in the United States. The thriller aspects of this novel dominate the satirical social commentary. Hart lets the story speak for itself, and Cloud does what it is has been built to do. Hart gives us workplace conditions that exploit, corporate behavior that’s predatory, and a culture of surveillance that’s downright creepy. The characters are finely drawn and complex. My discomfort from reading this novel arises from the sensation that everything Hart describes is plausible. A company that gives people what they want. What could be wrong with that? Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase The Warehouse from amazon.com.

The Starless Sea

Doors. With apologies (or thanks) to Dr. Seuss, oh the places we’ll go and the things we’ll see. That’s the welcome readers will receive when opening the five hundred page novel by Erin Morgenstern titled, The Starless Sea. There are keys to be found as shown on the book jacket and doors to be opened. We are taken inside a secret world and get to sail on a starless sea. We are on a journey, and this imaginative book will give interested readers a delightful magical tour. Morgenstern’s descriptive prose brings this world alive for us. Close readers will love the symbolism and the beauty of the writing and the references to other imaginative works of fiction. I loved the adventure of the journey and I admire the quality of the prose. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase The Starless Sea from amazon.com.

Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies, and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators

Tactics. After I read Ronan Farrow’s book titled, Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies, and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators, I realized that there was so little I knew when I read his article in The New Yorker in 2017 about Harvey Weinstein and his sexual abuse and exploitation of women. I learned the ways in which NBC stifled or resisted Farrow’s reporting on this story when he worked for them. I learned about the tactics used by Weinstein throughout his career to commit crimes and to cover them up. I was floored when I read about the spies hired to follow Farrow, and what one of those spies did when he understood the nature of his assignment. There’s always more to a story, and in this book, Farrow delivers more than I expected. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase Catch and Kill from amazon.com.

Nothing to See Here

Children. We parents want our children to become their best selves. Each child is unique and needs love and support from people who care for them. In his book titled, Nothing to See Here, Kevin Wilson presents us with twin ten-year-olds whose uniqueness is expressed when they spontaneously burst into flames. While the twins are unharmed when this happens, there can be collateral damage. Stepmother Madison hires an acquaintance from school, Lillian, to care for the twins. Lillian comes from poverty and Madison from privilege. As Lillian narrates this story, we laugh and enjoy Wilson’s finely crafted prose. We begin to understand the friendship between Madison and Lillian and reflect on the responsibilities we take on when we care for others. Readers who appreciate wacky and finely written literary fiction, rooted in deep understanding of human nature are those most likely to enjoy this imaginative and insightful novel. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase Nothing to See Here from amazon.com.

The Night Fire

Perils. The twenty-second crime novel by Michael Connelly to feature Harry Bosch is titled, The Night Fire. Once again, LAPD Detective RenĂ©e Ballard is on hand to face new perils with Harry. The widow of Harry’s mentor, Jack Thompson, gives him a murder book that Jack took home from the LAPD two decades earlier. Bosch and Ballard collaborate to get to the bottom of the case, which exposes them both to danger. Meanwhile, Harry is worried because his daughter faces peril at college, thanks to a stalker near campus. Harry is also collaborating with Mickey Haller, his half-brother, on a murder case which leads Bosch and Ballard toward added peril. Fans of this series and crime fiction are those readers most likely to enjoy this novel and may look forward to the reprise of the Black Widow from this book in a future installment. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Night Fire from amazon.com.

Thirteen: The Serial Killer Isn't on Trial. He's on the Jury

Serial. While the novel by Steve Cavanagh titled, Thirteen: The Serial Killer Isn't on Trial. He's on the Jury., is the third book to feature conman turned lawyer Eddie Flynn, this was my first exposure to the character. Flynn is the ideal protagonist: troubled and complex and talented. Fans of crime fiction will love this novel’s plot involving a smart serial murderer who has been outsmarting the justice system. For his latest killing, he has gotten himself a seat on the jury of a trial of someone he framed for murder. Squeamish readers may find the graphicly described violence disturbing. The characters are complex and interesting, the plot exciting, and the premise intriguing. This may be the first novel I’ve seen with a descriptive subtitle, which is clever and appealing. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Thirteen from amazon.com.

Life Undercover: Coming of Age in the CIA

Service. The memoir by Amaryllis Fox titled, Life Undercover: Coming of Age in the CIA, focuses on her decade of service working for the CIA. I was struck by her youth and the price that her service extracted from her personal life. Many readers will reflect on what happens to an individual whose early work life involved doing big and important things. Readers interested in the workings of the CIA will find a description of training, office work and field operations engaging and interesting. We come to understand the courage it takes to engage in covert work and we can see how finding meaning in the little things in life can supersede the really big stuff. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Life Undercover from amazon.com.

The Nobody People

Different. Fans of science fiction and dystopian novels are those readers most likely to enjoy Bob Proehl’s novel titled, The Nobody People. Proehl introduces us to individuals called Resonants who have a wide range of special abilities. The five hundred pages of this novel describe the ways in which the Resonants interact with the larger population. The novel explores how we treat those who are perceived as different, and how good and evil co-exist, sometimes in the same individual. This is a story of love, community and hope alongside fear, hatred and violence. The five hundred pages required patience at times, and resolution of the story will have to wait until the next novel which is to be released in Fall 2020. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Nobody People from amazon.com.

Dumpty: The Age of Trump in Verse

Partisan. Political satire through text and illustration have a long history. Actor John Lithgow has expanded beyond his acting chops to display his writing and drawing skill in his book titled, Dumpty: The Age of Trump in Verse. The illustrations by the author are terrific, and the verse contains a partisan bite that will delight some readers and annoy others. If you like watching The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, you’re likely to enjoy Lithgow’s book which the author read in part on that show. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Dumpty from amazon.com.

Diary of a Dead Man on Leave

Josef. Prolific novelist David Downing sets his stand alone novel titled, Diary of a Dead Man on Leave, in the town of Hamm, Germany in 1938. The book is structured as a diary that was found long after the war ended. The novel’s narrator arrived in Hamm as a Russian spy calling himself Josef Hoffmann. He was sent to Germany to reactivate a communist cell. Josef knew that he should write nothing down, but he proceeds anyway. As he settles into Hamm, he grows close to a widow who rents him a room and he guides her son, Walter, in a fatherly way. Walter is the one who found the diary and his eyes are opened, as are ours, by this account from a fascinating character and overall good guy. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Diary of a Dead Man on Leave from amazon.com.