Tuesday, December 20, 2016

We Are Unprepared

Storm. Don’t read Meg Little Reilly’s debut novel titled, We Are Unprepared while you are sitting at home awaiting the arrival of a superstorm. We usually want fiction to take us away from our own reality, and that’s exactly what Reilly did for me when I read this novel at home under fair skies. A young couple, Pia and Ash, have moved from Brooklyn to a small Vermont town in a quest for a simpler life with greater contact with the land and more self-reliance. Forecasts of a superstorm have divided the community into the preppers who are hunkering down individually and authorities who want to shore up community defenses. Pia joins the preppers and Ash the authorities. Reilly uses the tension of the coming storm to drive the plot while she closely examines the psychological issues at play and explores the relationship between Pia and Ash. Reilly unveils all the ways in which we can be unprepared for what life brings, and readers who enjoy literary fiction and are willing to try out a debut novel are those most likely to appreciate this book. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase We Are Unprepared from amazon.com.


Treasure. I read novels from the various franchises that Clive Cussler has created for the same reason I will go to some fast food outlets: I get exactly what I expect and it doesn’t take long to achieve satisfaction. The latest Sam and Remi Fargo novel is titled, Pirate, and, spoiler alert: there is treasure involved. As fans can safely assume, the Fargos travel to multiple locations, and face a formidable foe in the search for treasure. If you have any doubt about who gets the treasure, you’ve never read a novel in this series. Readers who enjoy action novels that lead toward good feelings by the end are those most likely to enjoy this novel and this series. Rating: Three-star (It’s ok) Click here to purchase Pirate from amazon.com.

Why the Right Went Wrong: Conservatism--From Goldwater to the Tea Party and Beyond

Punditry. Political punditry is a dangerous game that is often played with confidence and a short shelf life. E.J. Dionne, Jr. selected what he thought was a perfect time for presenting his version of the story of conservatism in a book titled, Why the Right Went Wrong. I read this book before the completion of the 2016 election and am writing this review after Donald J. Trump was elected. Dionne offers readers a clear presentation of his interpretation of the past fifty years. Chances are, in light of the 2016 results, he might want to reconsider the “beyond” portion of his book. Readers interested in politics and open to multiple points of view are those most likely to enjoy reading this book. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Why the Right Went Wrong from amazon.com.

Here Comes the Sun

Jamaica. Nicole Dennis-Benn’s debut novel is titled, Here Comes the Sun. Set in Jamaica, the novel explores the longing for power and independence, the fulfillment of dreams by a cast of women whose lives are undergoing profound personal change. Each character is drawn with precision. Some characters are complex and fully formed; others seemed to be created as foils for the interaction needed to reveal other characters. Readers can feel the depth of greed and longing on many pages. There is sadness that permeates many parts of the novel and burdens that are borne by many characters right up to their limits. Readers interested in a new literary voice are those most likely to enjoy reading this novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Here Comes the Sun from amazon.com.

Angel Catbird Volume One

Comic. Thanks to Margaret Atwood, I’ve finally selected a graphic novel to read. The text for Angel Catbird Volume One was written by Atwood, and the beautiful illustrations are by Johnnie Christmas. Funny and serious at the same time as Atwood can often be, I found the footnotes the perfect touch to address the serious side of this work. I expected a graphic novel to be longer, and found this volume to be closer to my recollection of some comic books from my youth. I loved the story, and am now likely to keep reading the series as additional volumes are produced. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Angel Catbird from amazon.com.

The Adventurist

Office. If one reason you read fiction is to take your mind away from work and your workplace, don’t read J. Bradford Hipps’ debut novel, The Adventurist. Protagonist Henry Hurt is an alienated and lonely software engineer prone to great introspection as he grieves the death of his mother. Hipps’ prose is carefully constructed, and his word choices exquisite. There’s psychological insight on these pages, as we get to look beneath an outer monotonous life to see an active and vibrant inner life. Readers who enjoy literary fiction are those most likely to enjoy reading this novel. Rating: Three-star (It’s ok) Click here to purchase The Adventurist from amazon.com.

White Sands

Outside. Before you plan your next trip, think about what a destination means, and what makes that place what it is. To help in that process, consider reading Geoff Dyer’s book titled, White Sands: Experiences from the Outside World. In this interesting book of essays, Dyer explores interesting places, and reflects on what makes them what they are. He offers images that convey a unique sense of place, and correlates those to memories that have stayed with him for decades. When we step outside ourselves and our familiar places, we can ask questions different from our normal awareness. In other words, stepping outside can answer larger, inside, important questions about life and meaning. See how Dyer does it, and think about how you could do the same. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase White Sands from amazon.com.

Wedding Cake Murder

Wholesome. The glacial pace of the Hannah Swensen series by Joanna Fluke moved ahead rapidly in the 19th novel titled, Wedding Cake Murder. Hannah’s ready to marry Ross Barton and that excitement is enhanced by her participation in a cooking show in New York City and Lake Eden. Fluke reprises the full cast of characters, includes loads of new recipes, and plants a great murder for Joanna to solve. While formulaic and predictable, the series is wholesome entertainment and the recipes are mouth-watering. Rating: Three-star (It’s ok) Click here to purchase Wedding Cake Murder from amazon.com.

My Documents

Voice. The eleven short stories in the collection by Alejando Zambra titled, My Documents, display a wide range of writing skills and exploration of our human condition. Some are funny, others grave, some hopeful, and others full of disillusionment. This Chilean writer has great skill and a unique voice. Any reader who enjoys short stories and has not read his work should consider reading this fine collection. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase My Documents from amazon.com.

Cat Out of Hell

Purrs. Any reader with a slightly off-kilter funny bone will find loads of laughs in Lynne Truss’ novel titled, Cat Out of Hell. Cat lovers will find even more reasons to purr and will jot down quotes from the novel. Cat haters will find lots of support for a thesis that all cats are from a special place in hell Any reader will find something to smile about, laugh at, or purr over, on the pages of this witty novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Cat Out of Hell from amazon.com.

Thursday, December 15, 2016


Reevaluation. All is not as it appears in the life of the protagonist of Juan Gabriel Vasquez’ novel titled, Reputations, especially when he is compelled to remember his past and reevaluate its meaning. Javier Mallinaro has spent decades as a political cartoonist whose drawings wielded great power in Colombia. Once he begins to examine his past more closely, and think about whether his drawings represent the truth he has thought it did, he uncovers disturbing things. Vasquez delves into the effects of deep questioning in this novel and the impact of the past on the present especially the reliability of memory, drawing readers into pondering what is real and what is illusory. Readers who enjoy literary fiction are those most likely to enjoy this novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Reputations from amazon.com.

The Sympathizer

Identity. After reading Viet Thanh Nguyen’s novel titled, The Sympathizer, I understand why it won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. This novel is like a piece of music in which each part contributes a unique element to the whole, and the result is a complexity and harmony that should resonate for most readers. This is a presentation of the Vietnam War from the point of view of a Vietnamese American in which all parties are held accountable. Nguyen presents love and betrayal alongside the defining elements of identity that provides the core theme for the novel. The pleasure of reading a digital version of this work is that I was able to search and discover that Nguyen uses the phrase “crapulent major” seventy six times, and “affectless lieutenant” twenty three times. That repetition became an example for me of the comparison to music: the phrases provided an expected and harmonious rhythm that I came to anticipate as the novel progressed. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Sympathizer from amazon.com.


Humans. I did not expect that a novel about Catholic cardinals gathering to elect a new Pope would be so much fun to read. Thanks to Robert Harris’ writing skill, his novel titled, Conclave, entertained me from beginning to end for several reasons. Harris ignores the external images of the conclave process being a somber and deliberative ritual and brings us into the messy human behavior of flawed people, just like us, who are at the conclave and just happen to be cardinals. Harris shows the political jockeying for votes, the regional and doctrinal factions, and some personal issues from the past of these very fallible cardinals who are striving to become Pope. As the balloting went on over many days, I couldn’t put the novel aside because I was so interested in seeing how Harris would wrap things up, especially in what would happen with the surprise cardinal who arrived at the conclave unknown and unexpected. I was delighted by the ending, and entertained throughout. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Conclave from amazon.com.

The Mothers

Regret. Brit Bennett draws readers into the connected lives of three main characters in her debut novel titled, The Mothers. We meet Nadia, Luke and Aubrey as teens and stay with them for about a decade. Bennett links them to a church community and the mothers of that church provide a motif for how the community reflects on what behaviors are observed. The abundance of mothers in the book and the different forms of mothering call attention to a variety of decisions that are made, some of which lead to deep and lasting regret. Having set the relationship trio as the plot structure for the book, Bennett uses her skills at writing fine prose to keep readers engaged and thinking about these interesting characters and the long-term consequences of youthful decisions. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Mothers from amazon.com.

The Rains

Invasion. I couldn’t let the year end without reading at least one zombie novel. I think I chose wisely in selecting Gregg Hurwitz’ book titled, The Rains. Aliens hitchhike on asteroids, land on earth, implant themselves in human shells and begin to invade and occupy Earth and all its inhabitants. A remnant of children survives and Hurwitz develops the plot using their survival as momentum. What’s not to like? For those squeamish readers when it comes to violence and gore, there may be too many pages packed with description meant to forestall any semblance of comfortable sleep at night. For readers who like this genre that it targeted to young readers, there’s some good writing to enjoy in this novel and an exciting story that is just getting started. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Rains from amazon.com.

Friday, December 9, 2016

No Man's Land

Weaponized. I have to admit that the dialogue in the fourth novel in the John Puller series by David Baldacci titled, No Man’s Land, made my eyes roll often. While Baldacci uses dialogue to contribute to exposition, he doesn’t seem to have an ear for the way people really talk. For readers and fans who can set that aside, this action-packed novel will provide a lot of escapist pleasure. There’s a Puller family story at the core of the novel, and a character, Paul Rogers, who has been the subject of a government program gone awry. Rogers’ body and mind were configured as weapons. Uncovering the who and why behind that as well as the Puller family connection, occupy over four hundred meandering pages. Readers who like this author and this series are those most likely to appreciate this novel. Rating: Three-star (It’s ok) Click here to purchase No Man’s Land from amazon.com.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Parts 1 & 2

Time. The eighth book in the Harry Potter series titled, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Parts I & II, is the script of a play set two decades after the last novel. Harry’s son, Albus, is at Hogwarts, and the play delves into the theme of parents and children, while using the structure of time to move the action. I liked it well enough for what it is: something different in form, structure and time period. I didn’t hate it much for what it isn’t: a big sprawling novel that absorbs one’s total attention like the earlier installments, a book I might have enjoyed more than this one. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Harry Potter and the Cursed Child from amazon.com.

The Language of Secrets

Poetry. The second novel in the series featuring detectives Rachel Getty and Esa Khattak by Ausma Zehanat Khan is titled, The Language of Secrets. It’s not often that poetry becomes a key component of a crime novel, but that’s the case in this Canadian detective procedural. Khan continues to develop the characters of these interesting and complex protagonists. The plot pacing will please most readers, and the subject matter is serious and thoughtfully presented. Readers who enjoy intelligent crime fiction are those most likely to enjoy this novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Language of Secrets from amazon.com.

Sorrow Road

Secrets. The fifth novel in the series by Julia Keller featuring protagonist Bell Elkins is titled, Sorrow Road. Fans of the series will enjoy the reprisal of familiar characters, but may find a little less of Bell in this installment than in earlier novels. Keller covers that void with a plot covering two time periods and a broad exploration of the issues of memory and remembrance. Set as always in Acker’s Gap, West Virginia, the location comes alive thanks to Keller’s descriptive language. Readers who like mysteries are those most likely to enjoy reading this novel and this series. Rating: Three-star (It’s ok like it) Click here to purchase Sorrow Road from amazon.com.

The Eastern Shore

Editor. Ward Just uses great skill to balance three key elements in his novel titled, The Eastern Shore. First, he presents readers with a deeply drawn character study of protagonist Ned Ayres, a longtime editor. Second, he sets the contemporary action in a home on Maryland’s Eastern Shore and that place provides a physical manifestation of Ned’s inner life. Finally, Just explores the complex issue of privacy, especially in the context of journalism. A formative event in Ned’s early work life relating to privacy has been on his mind for decades, and Just dissects that expertly. That Just achieves this balance in about two hundred pages brought me great reading pleasure. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Eastern Shore from amazon.com.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Christmas Caramel Murder

Novella. The twentieth novel to feature the Minnesota adventures of baker Hannah Swensen is titled, Christmas Caramel Murder. More of a novella that a whole new installment, this book does a flashback from the 19th novel, and contains even fewer recipes than earlier novels. I’ve been entertained by earlier novels in this series because the characters and plot always lead to good feelings, no matter that there’s a murder at the center of the story. Diehard fans will love this novel, but new readers might want to start elsewhere for a full serving of this sweet series. Rating: Three-star (It’s ok) Click here to purchase Christmas Caramel Murder from amazon.com.

The Girls

Manson. I noticed that I kept getting tired while reading Emma Cline’s debut novel titled, The Girls. Set in 1960s California, the novel takes an intense look at the relationships among young women in a cult based largely on what we came to think of as the Manson family. I realized that I was sated by too much of a good thing. Emma Cline’s prose is so finely structured that I was receiving it as overwrought and would get tired reading good sentence after good sentence. There was a level of detail and a degree of intensity that I appreciated on many pages, but certainly not on every page. I found myself putting the novel aside to read something a bit less intense and with prose that flowed a bit more smoothly. Readers who appreciate carefully constructed literary fiction are those most likely to enjoy reading this novel. Rating: Three-star (It’s ok) Click here to purchase The Girls from amazon.com.

The North Water

Cold. Ian McGuire’s novel titled, The North Water, made me shiver for many reasons. The action takes place on a whaling ship heading to the Artic in the 1850s, so the physical setting is frigid. The characters present dark and cold elements from a captain considered unlucky by his crew, to a murderer, to a surgeon brooding over his past. McGuire matches his prose to the setting and the characters: sharp, bitter cold, penetrating language. There’s no nostalgia for the good old days of some idealized past as we find in much historical fiction. McGuire presents a harsh time with hard people fighting for survival. On deeper levels, McGuire injects a notion of resurrection that I found was a pathway to escape the cold and darkness facing readers on every page. Fans of finely written literary fiction are those most likely to enjoy this well-crafted novel. A huge bonus was the suspense in the plot which made my heart beat faster, and warm me from the coldness of the page. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The North Water from amazon.com.

Another Brooklyn

Lyrical. Most readers of Jacqueline Woodson’s novel titled, Another Brooklyn, may not identify with the experience of coming of age in Brooklyn in the 1970s. Readers who enjoy finely written literary fiction will identify with, enjoy and appreciate the quality of Woodson’s lyrical prose. I may have read too many books this year about female friendship, but the prose in this novel sets it apart and I recommend it to any reader of fine fiction, whether interested in Brooklyn or not. Where you live is very likely to be another Brooklyn, and reading this novel may help you know that. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Another Brooklyn from amazon.com.

The Devils of Cardona

Intrigue. Fans of action-packed historical fiction may want to consider reading Matthew Carr’s debut novel titled, The Devils of Cardona. Carr presents lots of characters who he places in a complex plot set in the late 16th century in Spain. With the Inquisition as the backdrop, what’s not to like? Protagonist Bernardo Mendoza is a royal prosecutor and his investigation into the murder of a corrupt priest provides the core of the action. I was highly entertained by this novel, especially the scope of the intrigue that Carr examines without letting up on the plot momentum. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Devils of Cardona from amazon.com.