Thursday, February 23, 2017

4 3 2 1

Chance. My uncle broke his leg a few weeks before his ship was due to depart England for the United States. My father was then told by his brothers that he would now be the one chosen to emigrate to America. Had that chance accident not occurred, I might not have been born, let alone become the person who I am today. Paul Auster explores this notion of chance in his novel titled, 4 3 2 1. Given the brevity of his earlier novels, which I enjoyed, I was willing to commit the time to this book which is almost nine hundred pages long. I was richly rewarded by a clever structure and finely written prose. Auster presents protagonist Archie Ferguson in four variations. Pivots, luck, accidents led Ferguson in one direction or another. Auster spends long enough with each Ferguson so readers can see the similarities and differences. I enjoyed each Ferguson variation and expect that this novel will be enjoyed most by patient readers who enjoy finely written prose. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase 4 3 2 1 from

The Girl from Venice

Cenzo. Readers who enjoy character-driven fiction are those most likely to enjoy reading Martin Cruz Smith’s novel titled, The Girl from Venice. Set in Italy at the end of World War II, the novel’s protagonist, Innocenzo Vianello, or Cenzo, is a fisherman with a boatload of concerns. Smith uses Cenzo as the way to explore what it was like to be an Italian as the war was ending. The ways in which the war changed his life comprise the bulk of the narrative. There’s a love story and enough action to interest most readers, but the real strength of the novel is in the depth of the character, Cenzo, and all the ways in which he becomes a way for us to better understand human nature. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Girl from Venice from

Britt-Marie Was Here

Loyalty. First impressions can be so misleading. The early pages of Frederik Backman’s novel titled, Britt-Marie Was Here, present protagonist Britt-Marie as a very annoying person. Her social interactions lack the finesse and ease that mark most of our daily encounters. The annoying aspects of her personality and her ways of relating with others mask the reality of a loving person whose presence changes all those around her for the better. Readers looking for a novel to lift one’s spirits should consider reading this joyful novel about an individual whose loyalty can be counted on, no matter what. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Britt-Marie Was Here from


Healing. What does it take to heal a serious wound? What does justice mean? Can there be any reparation for a loss of life? When one’s actions lead to the death of another, can there be any redemption? What does it mean to be part of a family, a community, a culture? All those questions and more are explored with great skill by Louise Erdrich in her novel titled, LaRose. Erdrich presents a large cast of characters and develops them in diverse complexity so that readers can savor their depth. She presents a story that grabbed me from the first pages and kept me absorbed in key questions to the very end. Readers who enjoy finely written literary fiction are those most likely to enjoy this novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase LaRose from

The Hidden Man

Deceit. One of the reasons that I enjoy reading spy novels is for the creative ways in which secrets are kept and revealed. Charles Cumming maintained my enthusiastic interest in his treatment of deceit in his novel titled, The Hidden Man. The action centers around three members of the Keen family: father Christopher, and sons Mark and Benjamin. Deceit involving each of these men led to dramatic consequences. Cumming’s prose maintains suspense throughout the novel and his writing should appeal to any reader who enjoys spy fiction. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Hidden Man from

Thursday, February 16, 2017

What Belongs to You

Alienation. I added Garth Greenwell’s debut novel titled, What Belongs to You, to my reading queue after it was longlisted for the National Book Award. Within two hundred finely written pages, Greenwell offers a complex psychological novel that he presents using exquisite prose. The narrator is a young American gay man living in Bulgaria teaching English. He visits a public restroom and pays for sex with Mitko, a young Bulgarian man of limited means. Greenwell draws readers into patterns of desire, shame, obsession, loneliness and most of all alienation. However Greenwell does it, love and disgust can be in the same paragraph and a reader can remain interested and involved in this complicated relationship. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase What Belongs to You from

Modern Lovers

Brooklyn. Relationships can become complicated as they change over time. With a light touch and much psychological insight, Emma Straub explores this subject in her novel titled, Modern Lovers. Four Oberlin students, Lydia, Elizabeth, Andrew and Zoe formed a band they called “Kitty’s Mustache.” Lydia made one of their songs famous before she died of an overdose in her late twenties. The novel, set mostly in contemporary Brooklyn, shows the other band members dealing with all the expected concerns: midlife crisis, children coming of age, real estate and longing for fulfillment. Aging hipsters and Brooklyn could have fallen into rapid stereotype, but Straub makes the characters complex and interesting, while keeping the story light and engaging. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Modern Lovers from

Chance Developments

Photographs. In a departure from his prolific serial fiction, Alexander McCall Smith presents five short stories in a collection titled, Chance Developments. Each story uses a vintage photograph as inspiration and starting point. As in his longer fiction, Smith in this book celebrates love and calls attention to characters who are fundamentally good. My preference remains with his longer prose, but I found each of these stories interesting and enjoyable. Longer fiction and the serial form allow him to do greater character development than he achieves in these short pieces. Rating: Three-star (It’s ok) Click here to purchase Chance Developments from

Hotels of North America

Reviews. Readers who look to fiction to distill contemporary life and offer insight for reflection are those most likely to enjoy reading the fine prose and creativity of Rick Moody’s novel titled, Hotels of North America. Moody uses the structure of online hotel reviews by protagonist and motivational speaker, Reginald Edward Morse. Morse has become melancholy and through Moody’s finely crafted sentences, we enjoy the presentation of a life of loneliness, regret, humor and a dose of irony. Rating: Three-star (It’s ok) Click here to purchase Hotels of North America from

Church of Marvels

Enchantments. Leslie Parry lays out four plot lines in her debut historical novel titled, Church of Marvels. By the end of the book, all the lines come together nicely. Along the way, Parry describes New York City life in the 1890s, from Coney Island to the Lower East Side. The enchantments of circus life offset the descriptions of a dark and gritty environment. Parry’s writing is also enchanting as she structures the novel toward resolution. Readers who are looking for a new author to explore are those who might enjoy this novel. Rating: Three-star (It’s ok) Click here to purchase Church of Marvels from

Friday, February 10, 2017


Change. The second novel in a trilogy by Rachel Cusk is titled, Transit, a good name for a book that takes us from the first toward the third. Cusk’s unusual prose style and structure for fiction may unsettle some readers. After a few pages, I was reminded of what I liked so much in Outline, the first novel. Cusk offers readers access to the conversations, everyday experiences and stories of a protagonist’s life during a time of change. Thanks to Cusk’s great writing skill, each sentence can bring pleasure to readers who enjoy finely written literary fiction. Along the way, some musings in those sentences can become philosophical and offer great insight into how we deal with the significant changes in our lives. I enjoyed this finely written novel and look forward to reading the finale. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase Transit from

Precious and Grace

Forgiveness. I know that whenever I feel low, I can turn to a novel by Alexander McCall Smith and get my spirits revived, especially from his series featuring Mma Ramotse and Mma Makutsi of the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency in Botswana. The seventeenth novel in that series is titled, Precious and Grace, and the theme in this offering is forgiveness. Fans of the series can brew a pot of tea, bush or otherwise, and sit for a while with endearing characters who reveal the best about human nature. Few readers will close one of these novels without having smiled on one page or another. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Precious and Grace from

The Story of the Lost Child

Finale. People who have read the first three novels of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Series are those most likely to read the finale titled, The Story of the Lost Child. Consistent with the earlier novels, the character development is strong, the situations are presented with insight, and the complexity of love and friendship remains on center stage. As the friends we have followed from childhood have matured, the issues they face are very significant and Ferrante presents those issues with great skill, and the characters mature in complexity as well as age in this final volume. Readers should not start the series with this novel, but will gain much from going to the beginning and getting all the rewards in this final installment. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Story of the Lost Child from

The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds

Genius. I’ll read whatever Michael Lewis offers. While reading his latest book titled, The Undoing Project, I couldn’t wait to see how Lewis put all the pieces together. He describes the lifelong friendship between Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, two geniuses whose conversations led to insights about how the mind works and how people behave in ways that are not always rational. Their insights changed fields from medicine to economics. What Lewis achieves is taking these two individuals, displaying their individual personalities, and then proceeding to inform readers about all the ways in which these two individuals have changed how we live in the modern world, thanks to their energized and animated conversations and their inquiring skeptical minds. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase The Undoing Project from

The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047

Collapse. Readers who are frightened about the future should not read Lionel Shriver’s novel titled, The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047. She takes a strongly dystopian view of the collapse of society and uses the story of an extended family as the way in which to frighten readers about how the current trajectory of some directions in society could well lead to a collapse in our economy and dramatic transformation of society. The characters are deeply developed, the plot very engaging, and the prose is finely written. So, for those readers who are less than frightened about the future are those most likely to enjoy reading this novel. I enjoyed reading it from beginning to end. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Mandibles from

Friday, February 3, 2017

The Clancys of Queens

Voice. Readers who want to dive into contemporary life in working class Queens, New York, will delight in the authentic voice of Tara Clancy in her memoir titled, The Clancys of Queens. A bonus is that Clancy lived two lives: one in working class Queens and another in wealthy Bridgehampton where her mother lived with a wealthy businessman. These contrasting lives combine to form an engaging story and Tara’s voice comes through with perspective and authenticity. She addresses her sexual identity with candor and clarity and the acceptance by her family was heart-warming. I enjoyed reading about an interesting life by a person open to sharing so many aspects of that life. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Clancys of Queens from

Today Will Be Different

Unexpected. Maria Semple’s writing often makes me laugh. She has a way of observing contemporary life and presenting it to us with great skill and a gentle skewering of our first world problems. In the novel titled, Today Will Be Different, protagonist Eleanor Flood wants to make some changes in her life. She begins with a plan, but things don’t work out as planned. Partway through the novel there’s a shift from Eleanor’s point of view to a third person narrator and what happens from that point forward was unexpected. Read a sample of Semple’s writing. If you smile from a sample, chances are you’ll be entertained by the entire novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Today Will Be Different from

Hero of the Empire: The Boer War, a Daring Escape, and the Making of Winston Churchill

Ambition. Tens of thousands of pages have been written by and about Winston Churchill, and a general reader may wonder whether a single sliver of his life will be worth taking the time to read. My answer is an overwhelming “yes,” should you choose Candice Millard’s finely written book titled, Hero of the Empire: The Boer War, a Daring Escape, and the Making of Winston Churchill. The Boer War came at a formative time in Churchill’s life and his raw ambition to make a name for himself during this war comes through with great clarity, thanks to Millard’s fine writing. She tells an engaging story, and highlights those key elements that convey the depth and complexity of Winston Churchill. Anyone who enjoys reading history that’s well-written and with any interest at all in Winston Churchill will likely find hours of pleasure while reading this book. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase Hero of the Empire from

Do Not Say We Have Nothing

Music. Sometimes fiction can transport readers to unfamiliar places and there to discover that what appears to be different may be universal. In her novel titled, Do Not Say We Have Nothing,Madeline Thien brings key milestones in life in China over the past five decades to life through two families and their love of music. Events like the Cultural Revolution and the Tiananamen Square Protests take on a different level of understanding when viewed through the eyes of characters who we come to know as people just like us. Music has been called the universal language, and Thien uses that framework as a way to draw us into families and characters we care about, into politics that are divisive and harmful, and into a story that is complex on many levels. Patient readers are rewarded with insights about creativity and freedom that are universal. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase Do Not Say We Have Nothing from

The Trespasser

Twists. Fans of crime fiction who enjoy lots of plot twists and surprises are those most likely to enjoy the latest Tana French novel in her Dublin Murder Squad Series. Titled, The Trespasser, this novel features detective partners Antoinette Conway and Stephen Moran. After they are assigned a murder case at the end of a shift by their gaffer, the pace accelerates and readers are bounced all over the possible theories of the case and are left guessing at many plot junctures. French kept me guessing to the very end of the novel, and I was thoroughly entertained by the plot and the characters. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Trespasser from


Loss. I was overwhelmed by the depth of insight about our human condition while I was reading Emily Ruskovich’s debut novel titled, Idaho. Readers who can tolerate ambiguity from multiple voices and time periods will be rewarded with deep character development and an exploration of loss and suffering. The losses are deep and life altering and the response to loss and suffering must be love in whatever form that takes to provide hope and redemption. In many ways, this is a novel we could expect from an author who has lived a long and full life. What a gift to discover a young writer with wisdom beyond her years and the fine writing skills to offer that wisdom to readers through deeply developed characters and lyrical prose. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase Idaho from

Every Exquisite Thing

Rebellion. I’m not especially influenced by the genre designation that some publishers assign to appeal to a target market. I think Matthew Quick’s novel titled, Every Exquisite Thing, wound up in the Young Adult section of the bookstore and library. I’ve read several other novels by Quick, and thought this story of rebellion was a highly entertaining story. There is an act of rebellion by the protagonist set against a fictional work about rebellion that propels the action. This clever and interesting approach kept me interested and engaged from beginning to end. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Every Exquisite Thing from

Multiple Choice

Aptitude. Whatever you do, don’t give a copy of Alejandro Zambra’s novel titled, Multiple Choice, to anyone in your life preparing to take a standardized examination. Zambra structured this book after the aptitude test he took as a young man in Chile in 1993. The result is a disarmingly creative book that reflects aspects of the Chilean dictatorship of that era, and how so much of the educational experience can involve repetition and avoid thinking. This novel can be read quickly or pondered gradually through re-reading. It is among the strangest books I’ve read in recent months, and one of the most interesting and creative works. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Multiple Choice from

Odessa Sea

Predictable. The latest novel in the Dirk Pitt series by Clive Cussler is titled, Odessa Sea. I read Cussler because the books can be entertaining and there are elements that remain constant and predictable. The good guys get into tight situations. The bad guys are up to no good in complicated and serious ways. The good guys win. In another week or two I will have totally forgotten the plot. By the time the next Pitt novel comes out, I’ll be ready to read it, knowing that what I predict will come true: the good guys will outsmart the bad guys again, no matter what. Rating: Three-star (It’s ok) Click here to purchase Odessa Sea from


Exposed. Vacations can do so much for us and to us. Delia Ephron uses a vacation in Sicily as the way to expose the pretenses in marital relationships. In her novel titled, Siracusa, Ephron alternates narrators to present different views on the action, the intentions and the impact of what happens while these characters are on vacation. Modern relationships can be complicated, and Ephron takes that complexity and reveals it with scathing simplicity. Take a vicarious and dark vacation, one you are not likely to emulate willingly, and read this novel as a perfect respite from your world and your relationships. When you finish, life will seem so perfect. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Siracusa from