Tuesday, May 22, 2018

The Judge Hunter

Pepys. Readers looking for an escape from the present for laughs about the past with a nod toward contemporary life are those most likely to love reading Christopher Buckley’s novel titled, The Judge Hunter. Set in the 17th century, the novel mixes historical figures like Samuel Pepys and Peter Stuyvesant with an interesting cast of fictional characters. The plot and schemes are funny, the prose fast-paced, and the wit smile provoking. Buckley pokes Puritans and Quakers with equal fervor. I was thoroughly entertained by this novel. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase The Judge Hunter from amazon.com.

My Ex-Life

Ensemble. For those readers who find pleasure in spending time with an ensemble of interesting characters, consider reading Stephen McCauley’s novel titled, My Ex-Life. The central characters are undergoing dramatic changes in their lives and that provides the tension for the plot. Secondary characters provide terrific comic relief and reduce focus on looming deadlines in the lives of the protagonists. Underlying these relationships there is a deep caring for others that shows up in many forms. The setting, a seaside Massachusetts town, is presented with just enough detail to become vivid for readers. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase My Ex-Life from amazon.com.


Perky. I always finish reading a Christopher Moore novel in high spirits. Even when he takes on noir, he does it in a perky way. His latest novel titled, Noir, is set in San Francisco following World War II and the hijinks of a large cast of interesting characters kept me entertained throughout the novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Noir from amazon.com.

The Mars Room

Prison. Rachel Kushner grabbed me in the first few pages of her novel titled, The Mars Room, and didn’t let go until the very end. Protagonist Romy Hall is heading to prison for a long time and we don’t know why for hundreds of pages. But we do get to know life inside prison to such an extent that I started to wonder how much time Kushner spent in prison or whether she ever worked as an exotic dancer as she describes working in the Mars Room. I’m confident that neither is the case, but those thoughts arise because of Kushner’s literary skills and the ways in which she draws us into places and into the lives of people that are deep and rich. Prison society, poverty and justice are all displayed by Kushner as her finely written prose takes readers to places and people we may not typically encounter in our lives. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase The Mars Room from amazon.com.

Love and Ruin

Independent. Paula McLain continues her fiction about the wives of Ernest Hemingway with a novel about his third wife, Martha Gellhorn, in a novel titled, Love and Ruin. Martha couldn’t be more different from Hemingway’s earlier wives: she’s a courageous and talented journalist with a successful career. Her independence from Hemingway leads her to escape his shadow. Fans of McLain’s historical fiction are those readers most likely to enjoy this latest novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Love and Ruin from amazon.com.

Two Steps Forward

Path. In France, it is called Le Chemin de St. Jacques. In Spain, it is called El Camino de Santiago. It is the pilgrim path that ends in Spain in Santiago de Compostela. In their novel titled, Two Steps Forward, Graeme Simsion and Anne Buist, present the journey of a woman named Zoe and a man named Martin who meet on this pilgrim path. Zoe left California for this pilgrimage following the sudden death of her husband. Martin left England following a messy divorce, and his engineering background led him to design and field test a cart for pilgrims to use on this journey. What Zoe and Martin find on the journey will bring smiles to most readers. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Two Steps Forward from amazon.com.

The Immortalists

Siblings. Would you live differently if you knew the date of your death? Chloe Benjamin explores that question in her finely written novel titled, The Immortalists. After the four Gold siblings visit a fortune teller and are told when they will die, each individual makes choices about life because of what was foretold. Thanks to her finely written prose and deep character development, skeptical readers can overlook the magical dimension of their shared formative experience. Each sibling chooses differently how to incorporate into their lives what they were told in their youth. Benjamin develops each sibling’s life by drawing readers into specific times and places as she steadily maintained the novel’s momentum. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase The Immortalists from amazon.com.

The Escape Artist

Strained. I tried very hard to suspend disbelief while reading Brad Meltzer’s novel titled, The Escape Artist. Whether it was my failure to cut Meltzer slack or his straining credulity at almost every key plot turn, the outcome was my reading a novel that I never came to enjoy. On the positive side, protagonist Nola Brown was a very interesting character. The Houdini connection was fascinating. Those two elements were not sufficient for me to overcome a plot that strained logical reasoning multiple times. Rating: Two-star (I didn’t like it) Click here to purchase The Escape Artist from amazon.com.

Natural Causes: An Epidemic of Wellness, the Certainty of Dying, and Killing Ourselves to Live Longer

Uncontrollable. One of my favorite personal foibles involves living under the delusion that I have some control over my life. In a book titled, Natural Causes: An Epidemic of Wellness, the Certainty of Dying, and Killing Ourselves to Live Longer, Barbara Ehrenreich explores how our lives and journey toward death are uncontrollable, down to the cellular level, and the extraordinary means taken by medical practitioners to prolong life are often not based in scientific evidence. Ehrenreich faces the certainty of her death with confidence and describes her decision to abandon preventive and diagnostic medical procedures now that she has reached an age (mid-seventies) when death is more probable than long life. Supported by her PhD in cell biology, she uses a long section of this short book to explore how cells behave and misbehave. Readers beyond middle age think about quality of life and certainty of death, or we should, and Ehrenreich may not provide answers to our questions, but she stimulates thinking about what we can control and how much is far beyond anyone’s control. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Natural Causes from amazon.com.

Raspberry Danish Murder

Missing. Prolific writer and baker Joanne Fluke ended the twenty-first novel in her Hannah Swensen mystery series with a cliffhanger, and she inserted another frustrating cliffhanger at the conclusion of the twenty-second installment, a novel titled, Raspberry Danish Murder. Hannah’s husband, Ross, has gone missing, and one of Ross’ associates has been murdered. In this installment, there is less sleuthing by Hannah, even more baking and eating by the ensemble, and a general sense of slow progress with the series plot momentum. With all the health warnings about too much sugar, I think I never salivated while reading any of the twenty-nine recipes for sweet goodies in this installment. I may open the next installment to the end of the book to check for yet another cliffhanger, or go on a Swensen diet, and stop reading the series if it remains smothered in powdered sugar and no nutrition. Rating: Two-star (I didn’t like it) Click here to purchase Raspberry Danish Murder from amazon.com.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Let Me Lie

Turns. Fans of intricately plotted crime fiction are those readers most likely to enjoy Clare Mackintosh’s novel titled, Let Me Lie. Protagonist Anna Johnson is a new mom who still grieves the death of both her parents within the past year. After Anna receives a message that “it was not suicide,” she stumbles onto retired detective Murray Mackenzie who now works as a civilian at the desk of a local police station. Murray, Anna and readers are all trying to connect the dots as Mackintosh uses multiple narrators to present the story and to lead us all astray. I gave up counting the number of turns I made while reading this novel. By the end, I was entertained and satisfied, confident that I will do a better job at finding clues next time. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Let Me Lie from amazon.com.

High-Risers: Cabrini-Green and the Fate of American Public Housing

Portraits. Most readers know something about Cabrini-Green and have formed views and impressions about that place and all public housing. In a finely written book titled, High-Risers: Cabrini-Green and the Fate of American Public Housing, Ben Austen tells the Cabrini-Green story in ways that will enlighten all readers. Austen excels in the ways he humanizes matters of public policy by telling us about people: by offering portraits of residents and others that enliven the narrative and lead to heightened understanding about people who are mostly just like us. Poverty, race, class, politics and real estate are all lively topics, and Austen explores each of them in this finely written book. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase High Risers from amazon.com.

In the Shadow of Statues: A White Southerner Confronts History

Consciousness. How many things in your life do you go by every day and not really notice? The Confederate statues in New Orleans were outside mayor Mitch Landrieu’s consciousness until he was challenged to look at them from another point of view. Once he examined the statues and history more closely he came to the conclusions that the statues had to be removed from their places of prominence. In his book titled, In the Shadow of Statues: A White Southerner Confronts History, Landrieu begins and ends with the statues, and fills the middle with his personal story. You already have a view about these statues. Consider reading Landrieu’s book and see if your view matches what he learned and experienced in NOLO. I enjoyed reading this book and it has me paying a bit more attention to those parts of my life in which I would benefit from a bit more consciousness raising. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase In the Shadow of Statues from amazon.com.

The Driest Season

Unsubtle. Cielle, the teenage protagonist of Meghan Kenny’s debut novel titled, The Driest Season, lives on a Wisconsin farm in the early 1940s and experiences dramatic loss. There’s nothing subtle in the things that shake up Cielle’s world: her father’s suicide, a tornado that destroys the barn, the backdrop of the World War, a draught that threatens the family’s survival on the farm. What Kenny does well in this novel is make readers believe that Cielle handles everything in stride and finds hope after losses. A dramatic barn raising provides an image of a future during which all will one day be well. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Driest Season from amazon.com.


Cunning. The great strength of protagonist Lucy Mason in Christine Mangan’s debut novel titled, Tangerine, is her cunning. Set mostly in Tangier in the 1950s, the novel’s descriptive prose and dialogue draws readers into the images and lifestyle of that time and place. Mangan delves into close female relationships in this novel and the skills that one can use to manipulate another. Lucy plays a long game, and Mangan unravels the story with skill as readers are lulled and surprised by the plot. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Tangerine from amazon.com.

Blind Spot

Vision. Fans of both Teju Cole’s writing and his photography get a double treat when these artistic ventures are combined in a book titled, Blind Spot. Readers can linger on the images and absorb the prose that reveals Cole’s memories, the different settings and his reflections. We can see through the eyes of an artist and hear from him about the connections he has made while traveling around the around the world. We can observe with him how a change in his vision altered his photography. I finished reading this book thinking a lot about the art of seeing. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Blind Spot from amazon.com.

(((Semitism))): Being Jewish in America in the Age of Trump

Targeted. Jonathan Weisman’s sense of his Jewish identity became upended after his role as a New York Times editor gave him visibility in the last presidential election campaign and he found himself targeted and attacked on Twitter in what all can agree is a renewed anti-Semitism in America. In his book titled, (((Semitism))): Being Jewish in America in the Age of Trump, Weisman explores aspects of our current society and the ways in which hate and tolerance influence our politics. Weisman offers ways to leave behind any remaining complacency about hate and targeting of any groups and then aligning ourselves with anyone who is vulnerable in today’s toxic environment. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Semitism from amazon.com.

The Monk of Mokha

Journey. Fasten your seatbelt because once you start reading Dave Eggers’ book titled, The Monk of Mokha, you will not want to stop. Eggers introduces us to Mokhtar Alkhanshali, a young Yemeni American whose journey through life changes dramatically after he finds passion about coffee from Yemen. Mokhtar knew nothing about coffee from Yemen when he drifted into this passion, and once he learned all he could, he hustled and bargained and found every way possible to bring the fine coffee from Yemen to the coffee lovers of the world. Along the way, he finds himself in Yemen when Saudi bombs are falling on the country, and he uses every means possible to get out of the country with a hundred pounds of beans to process and present to tasters at a conference in Seattle. Eggers clearly got hooked by Mokhtar’s passion, and uses his finely written prose to tell us all an inspirational story. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Monk of Mokha from amazon.com.

Mrs. Osmond

Freedom. Every time I finish reading a novel by John Banville, I think about the delight he must feel in his freedom to have fun by writing the books he wants to write. In his latest novel titled, Mrs. Osmond, Banville takes Isabel Archer, the heroine of Henry James’ novel, The Portrait of a Lady, and twists the story in ways that made me smile. While the prose can be tough slogging at times as Banville writes in the style of James for this homage, the shift in plot made up for any challenges. Isabel returns to Gilbert Osmond in Italy with a surprise and she is admired by the way in which she turns the tables on a bad situation. This novel is all about freedom and Banville’s joy in writing it comes through, especially for those readers who enjoy literary fiction. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Mrs Osmond from amazon.com.

Raven Strategem

Middle. The second novel in Yoon Ha Lee’s Machineries of Empire trilogy is titled, Raven Strategem. For most of the novel, hero Kel Cheris appears in the form of General Shuos Jedao and his exploits provide the plot momentum as the story continues from the first installment and sets readers up for the finale. While I read the first novel quickly, I slowed down my pace for this one, but the large cast of characters, the complexity of the plot and the special terms Lee uses didn’t become clearer with a slower pace. I’m now prepared for a finale that I hope ends with a satisfying conclusion. Rating: Three-star (It’s ok) Click here to purchase Raven Strategem from amazon.com.

Thursday, May 3, 2018


Reborn. Close readers of Domenico Starnone’s novel titled, Trick, can explore many different levels of meaning, and find pleasure of one sort or another on every page, thanks to Jhumpa Lahiri’s finely written translation from the Italian. Most of us become set in our ways and it takes some change of location, attitude or relationship to lead us away from one set of behaviors and toward another. Protagonist Daniele Mallarico is an artist and grandfather who has been persuaded by his daughter to return to his childhood home in Naples to care for his four-year-old grandson, Mario, for a few days. Mallarico brings a work assignment with him: illustrations for a new edition of a book. Work is the center of Mallarico’s life and he is struggling with this new assignment. The return to his childhood home is jarring, as is his struggle in caring for Mario after the boy’s parents leave the home. The roles of grandparent and grandchild shift, and in a pivotal scene, the grandfather experiences a violent sort of baptism and becomes born anew, thanks in part to Mario’s competence. With newly opened eyes, the grandfather sees his art in a new light, and sees Mario’s skill in drawing as the boy imitates his grandfather. Meanwhile, the time away from the hone leads Mario’s parents to a rebirth of their own, having broken out of their habitual and broken relationship and into a newly found respect and love for each other. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase Trick from amazon.com.

Flat Broke with Two Goats

Next. Financial disaster arrived in the lives of Jennifer McGaha and her husband. Her memoir of this time is a finely written book titled, Flat Broke with Two Goats. Some people look backward when they face unwelcome change, but McGaha seemed to always look forward. Along the journey from an ordinary middle class suburban life to living in a neglected one-hundred-year-old cabin, McGaha seems to shift in her perspective of where she finds value in life. As I read this book, I remembered hearing wisdom from Normal Lear about his life lessons, the most important of which were two words: over and next. Whatever happened is over. It’s time for what’s next, so get on with it. What McGaha ended up getting on with was less college teaching and more goat raising. Fans of memoirs will find a lot to enjoy in McGaha’s story. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Flat Broke with Two Goats from amazon.com.

The Balcony

Place. The debut novel by Jane Delury titled, The Balcony, keeps a place constant and tells us the stories of some of the people associated with that place over time. The opening vignette grabbed my attention and interest. While I became a bit less focused for some of the middle chapters, the final chapter closed the book with one of the best chapters. The variety of different people Delury presents and their struggles and advantages are all interesting and suited perfectly to the place and to the time period in which they lived. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Balcony from amazon.com.

The Undertaker's Daughter

Inheritance. The protagonist of Sara Blaedel’s novel titled, The Undertaker’s Daughter, has been living what seems to a contented life in Copenhagen, Denmark. A widow in her forties, Ilka Nichols Jensen works as a school photographer. When she gets the news that her estranged father, whom she hasn’t seen in three decades, has died, she also learns that she has an inheritance: a funeral home in Racine, Wisconsin. With that set up, Blaedel puts Ilka into situations that strain credulity and provide the elements of a good murder mystery. While the novel brings one mystery to a satisfying conclusion, Blaedel leaves a cliffhanger that will please some readers and frustrate others. I assume there will be another novel featuring Ilka as she continues to struggle with what to do with the funeral home she inherited. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Undertaker’s Daughter from amazon.com.

The Woman in the Water

Youth. The refreshing eleventh installment in the Charles Lenox mystery series by Charles Finch is titled, The Woman in the Water. Instead of the mature Victorian detective from recent novels, we enjoy a prequel in this installment: Lenox’ first efforts at detecting. It will be no spoiler for fans that Lenox was a talented sleuth from the start. The writing is well-done, the plot engaging, the characters complex and the pace spot on. A civilized crime novel for intelligent readers is always a treat for those of us who enjoy this genre. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Woman in the Water from amazon.com.

The Common Good

Cogent. Former Secretary of Labor Robert B. Reich has written a short book titled, The Common Good. Instead of engaging in the latest form of partisan finger pointing, Reich calls for us to consider how the common good is a fundamental element of our society that has been eroding. Reich chronicles the key actions by a variety of individuals and groups that have moved norms of behavior from a focus on “we” to an exclusive focus on “me.” He reminds us about something important that we are veering away from by our own practices and what we are willing to tolerate from others. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Common Good from amazon.com.


Survivor. Readers looking for a compact novel with a heavy dose of unusual behavior should consider reading Peter Stenson’s novel titled, Thirty-Seven. Protagonist Mason Hues is Thirty-Seven, the appellation he received when he joined a cult and was assigned the next membership number. The Survivors believe that making themselves very sick leads to honesty and that honesty will lead to change. Stenson presents Mason to us as the last survivor of the cult, but after Mason’s boss, Talley, learns of his backstory, they reignite the journey from sickness toward honesty and change. Rating: Three-star (It’s ok) Click here to purchase Thirty-Seven from amazon.com.

The Gate Keeper

Restless. The twentieth installment of the Inspector Ian Rutledge series by the mother-son writing team named Charles Todd is titled, The Gate Keeper. After Ian’s sister, Frances, weds and departs on her honeymoon, a restless Rutledge leaves London and takes an aimless drive. On a desolate road in Suffolk, he comes on the scene of a woman standing outside a car in the middle of the road with her bloody hands over a man lying on the ground. Despite having left his Scotland Yard credentials at home and being considered a murder suspect himself, Rutledge injects himself into a complicated investigation that will delight most lovers of crime fiction. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Gate Keeper from amazon.com.

Bring Out the Dog

Field. There are eleven short stories in the debut collection by Will Mackin titled, Bring Out the Dog. Mackin is an Iraq and Afghanistan war veteran and these stories capture Mackin’s perspectives about different aspects of the field of war. Most readers will not have the field experience of these long wars, and Mackin finds ways of making a reader feel that we can understand the people and the places he describes, as well as the feelings of the characters Mackin presents. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Bring Out the Dog from amazon.com.

The Rising Sea

Machines. Fans of fast-paced thrillers will enjoy the latest installment in the NUMA Files series by Clive Cussler, a novel titled, The Rising Sea. Kurt Austin and Joe Zavala are back in an escapist novel that pits these heroes against worthy adversaries: machines. Past meets future when one scene has a swordfight, and another has Kurt driving a race car in competition against a self-driving machine. Meanwhile, water levels are rising because a mining operation has released undersea water into the ocean. As with all the installments in this series, it’s no spoiler that by the end, the good guys win. Rating: Three-star (It’s ok) Click here to purchase The Rising Sea from amazon.com.