Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Educated: A Memoir

Survival. There were many times while reading Tara Westover’s memoir titled, Educated: A Memoir, that my jaw dropped. This young woman’s extraordinary life kept me turning pages wanting to find out what happened next. Westover was raised in rural Idaho, home schooled, and limited to a world defined and interpreted by her survivalist parents. The end of the memoir is Westover earning her doctorate from Cambridge. The journey will interest any reader who enjoys learning about people whose experiences are quite different from ours. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase Educated from amazon.com.

The Hellfire Club

Fifties. I picked up Jake Tapper’s novel titled, The Hellfire Club, out of curiosity about whether the CNN correspondent could write. I kept reading because Tapper tells a great Washington story, set in the 1950s, that was an ideal escape from today’s toxic political environment. I especially enjoyed the finely written dialogue that rang true to my ear. I was thoroughly entertained by this novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Hellfire Club from amazon.com.

Becoming Myself: A Psychiatrist's Memoir

Introspective. If a psychiatrist isn’t introspective, who is? Irvin D. Yalom’s memoir titled, Becoming Myself: A Psychiatrist's Memoir, tells stories about himself, his family, his work, his patients and his writing. This master storyteller has found many different ways to engage every reader into this personal story. Yalom’s life has been well lived, and the joy that comes through on these pages will bring pleasure to readers. I was delighted from beginning to end. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Becoming Myself from amazon.com.

The Road to Unfreedom

Vulnerability. I started reading Timothy Snyder’s book titled, The Road to Unfreedom, on Independence Day. As I read about Russia and the rise of authoritarianism, I thought of Ben Franklin and his description of the United States: “a republic, if you can keep it.” Snyder surveys many ways in which western institutions are vulnerable, and how growing inequality highlights that vulnerability. Any citizens interested in reading something that will stimulate thinking about trends and our current situation will find a lot to think about after reading this book. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase The Road to Unfreedom from amazon.com.


Reflections. Rachel Cusk’s novel titled, Kudos, completes her trilogy with great success. Cusk takes her musings and reflections on everyday life to some higher level. Her prose led me to reread many of her finely crafted sentences. Her musings turn into insight often, and any reader who enjoys finely written literary fiction will find a lot to enjoy in this finale as well as in the earlier books in the trilogy. Those readers who prefer a well-structured beginning, middle and end won’t find that here, but patience with the loss of structure might lead to pleasure found in Cusk’s great sentences. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase Kudos from amazon.com.

The Sparsholt Affair

Dots. Some books are perfectly suited for summer reading because they have a sweep and some length that feel like an indulgence and treat while a reader can also relax. One such novel that I enjoyed this summer is Alan Hollinghurst’s The Sparsholt Affair. The novel covers three time periods: David Sparsholt and friends beginning in 1940; Johnny Sparsholt, his son, in the 1970s; and life today. Hollinghurst’s prose will enchant those readers who enjoy literary fiction. In addition to the pleasure I found in his sentences, I also enjoyed what he leaves out: instead of spelling out the action, he gives readers the joy of connecting the dots ourselves. This is a novel about beauty, art, desire, secrets and expression. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Sparsholt Affair from amazon.com.

Big Guns

Sunshine. I hope former Congressman Steve Israel had fun writing his novel titled, Big Guns, because I sure had fun reading it. Political humor can be tricky, especially during a time period when something that sounds crazy one day becomes policy the next. Israel nails it in this novel. In response to a campaign to ban handguns, the CEO of a gun maker and his lobbyist convince a member of Congress to introduce legislation to mandate that every American must own a firearm. The lobbyist, Sunny (Sunshine) McCarthy, is the daughter of the mayor of a town where the CEO has a home. Her mom the mayor passes an ordinance banning guns in that town and the CEO sets forces in motion to retaliate. Any reader looking for some funny fiction should consider this novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Big Guns from amazon.com.

The Honey Farm

Plagues. Harriet Alida Lye’s debut novel is titled, The Honey Farm. Things are not as they appear on the farm where protagonist Silvia arrives to spend the summer doing manual labor in exchange for room, board and a chance to write. Lye’s finely written prose will delight those readers who enjoy literary fiction. Close readers will revel in the many levels of meaning involving themes of faith, nature, power and control. Silvia seems to have arrived on the set of a bible scene when a series of plagues hit the farm: drought, frogs, lice, water turning red. Silvia finds all kinds of coming of age experiences on the farm, and Lye slowly unveils a story that falls hard by the end. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Honey Farm from amazon.com.

How It Happened

Puzzle. I enjoy those murder mysteries that require one’s brain to be engaged, and the latest one I’ve liked is Michael Kortya’s novel titled, How It Happened. Set in a small Maine town, we know the victims and we know the murderer. The remaining question is the one in the book’s title. Protagonist Rob Barrett is an FBI investigator who risks his career to answer that key question. A supporting cast of complex and interesting characters add to the mix. I enjoyed every minute spent on the Maine roads, following the twists and turns of the path to solve an intriguing puzzle. Even the dead ends were satisfying. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase How It Happened from amazon.com.

Miss Subways

Enchanted. The Irish myth of the love between Emer and Cuchulain comes to modern life in New York City, thanks to a novel by David Duchovny titled, Miss Subways. I thought about Borges and magical realism as I read this novel and reflected about the enchanted realms that might be alongside us all the time, if we would only look. That person in a rush toward the subway might be a god. I was engaged in this love story of two interesting and complex individuals, as well as the ways in which the city itself was the setting for enchanted love. Fans of love stories and NYC are those readers most likely to enjoy this novel, as are those who are well-versed in myths. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Miss Subways from amazon.com.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Facts and Fears: Hard Truths from a Life in Intelligence

Candid. In a book titled, Facts and Fears: Hard Truths from a Life in Intelligence, former United States director of national intelligence, James R. Clapper, offers readers a professional and candid description of five decades of life in the intelligence committee and the lessons he learned. Clapper’s life has been spent in public service, and he describes that life with a frankness that seems foreign and refreshing in relation to other memoirs. He seems to take an objective view of his failures, and praises others frequently. He can’t disclose classified things that readers would like to know, but nudges our attention toward areas of focus, including concerns about North Korea and Russian interference in United States elections. Set partisan views aside and listen to what Clapper has learned, whether you want to hear his message or not. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Facts and Fears from amazon.com.

Fascism: A Warning

Virulent. Former United States Secretary of State Madeline Albright examines the spread of fascism in the 20th and 21st century and rings an alarm bell for readers in her book titled, Fascism: A Warning. While in many places, democracy beat fascism in the 20th century, a variety of factors have caused a reduction in democracy around the world, allowing elements of fascism to infect politics. Russia and North Korea are prime examples of what Albright describes. While she doesn’t call Trump a fascist, she takes some shots and expresses concerns about some aspects of behavior that should alarm citizens. Readers interested in world affairs are those most likely to appreciate this cogent book. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase Fascism from amazon.com.

The Death of Mrs. Westaway

Magpies. One staple of summer reading is a suspense novel, and Ruth Ware’s latest book titled, The Death of Mrs. Westaway, will satisfy those readers who like an engaging thriller. A protagonist named Hal living hand to mouth receives a letter about an inheritance. Ware leads Hal to and fro as she considers how to play her hand, which is a skill she has developed as a Tarot card reader. When the magpies arrive on the scene, Agatha Christie fans will feel on familiar ground, albeit without a Miss Marple to straighten everything and everyone out. Instead we have hapless Hal gradually stumbling into jeopardy and reward. I was thoroughly entertained by this novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Death of Mrs. Westaway from amazon.com.


Shadows. Some of the best novels take readers to a different place and time and lead us to feel as if we are there in a vividly drawn setting alongside characters who are just like us and people we know. From the first pages of Michael Ondaatje’s novel, Warlight, I felt like I was in London in 1945, and as I read each paragraph, I saw shadows and light alternating across the rubble of the war. While some of the characters are just like you and me, others were a bit quirkier, but all are complex and finely drawn. This novel is a thriller that will appeal to any reader who enjoys fine writing. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase Warlight from amazon.com.

There There

Identity. The debut novel by Tommy Orange titled, There There, explores identity and issues of belonging and exclusion. The title refers to part of Gertrude Stein’s description of Oakland, California, where this novel is set. Orange draws readers into the lives of about a dozen Native Americans, and through each of them we learn about a segment of American culture and their struggles. This is a novel about chaos and disillusionment that seems to fit our current times precisely. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase There There from amazon.com.

God Save Texas: A Journey into the Soul of the Lone Star State

Home. I can offer three great reasons to read Lawrence Wright’s book titled, God Save Texas: A Journey into the Soul of the Lone Star State. First, the writing will delight those readers who enjoy well written prose. Second, Wright gives readers with no familiarity with Texas or those who know the state well a great sense of a big place that the author loves. Finally, this is a personal story that describes an intentional life and decisions to remain in the place he proudly calls home. Thirty years ago a transplanted Texan told me that when his children were born, he placed a pot of Texas dirt under the delivery bed so that the children could claim forever that they were born on Texas soil. After reading Wright’s book, I now understand a little better something I had considered very odd. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase God Save Texas from amazon.com.

The House Swap

Creepy. Fans of creepy thrillers are those readers most likely to enjoy London writer Rebecca Fleet’s introduction to American readers, a novel titled, The House Swap. Fleet uses a structure of two time periods, 2013 and 2015, along with a setting of home or away. Protagonist Caroline finds a way to restore trust in her marital relationship: she arranges a house swap to get the couple out of their routine. Gradually, readers learn what led to distrust. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The House Swap from amazon.com.

The Word Is Murder

Clever. Fans of mystery novels will love Anthony Horowitz’ novel titled, The Word Is Murder. Characters are finely drawn, the plot is engaging, and the misdirection is clever. A quirky former police detective, Daniel Hawthorne, wants a writer to document a true crime case and showcase Hawthorne’s skills at detection. Hawthorne uses clever methods to convince a writer named Anthony Horowitz who is busy with other books to take on the job. The story moves fast, the relationship between Daniel and Anthony is interesting, and the mystery was very satisfying. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Word Is Murder from amazon.com.


Descriptive. Fans of short stories are those readers most likely to enjoy the eleven finely crafted ones in a collection by Lauren Groff titled, Florida. She uses atmospheric descriptive language to embellish setting, character and mood, all the while working within the constraints of the genre. Most of the stories are set in Florida, and Groff finds ways to connect us to that place in many different dimensions. There’s wildness and conflict that will delight those readers who enjoy great writing. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Florida from amazon.com.


Deeper. Fans of David Sedaris will find his wit on full display in a new collection of stories titled, Calypso. While earlier stories have disclosed lots about his life and his family, the new collection does so on an even deeper level. A sense of mortality weaves these stories together, and there won’t be laughter when Sedaris talks about his relationship with his sister, Tiffany, at the time of her 2013 suicide. He reflects on his mother’s alcoholism in deeper ways as well. But don’t see this deepness as a downer. Readers will laugh at these stories because Sedaris’ wit is so sharp. Most of us will also think about our own mortality and our family relationships, and that’s fine. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Calypso from amazon.com.

Friday, July 6, 2018

How to Be Safe

Aftermath. How does one cope with the aftermath of trauma? That’s the subject that Tom McAllister explores in his novel titled, How to Be Safe. McAllister uses finely written prose as he places readers alongside a first-person narrator, Anna Crawford, whose turmoil can be overwhelming. In a world that seems to have gone nuts, Anna is on a similar journey of one descending into a personal madness. Readers can become agitated with her as she tries to figure out how to be safe. A novel that explores our relationship with violence and tragedy may not appeal to all readers, but McAllister’s fine writing kept me engaged. Each of us lives in the aftermath of something, and as we walk with Anna on her journey, we can reflect on how we have dealt with trauma in the past and how we might be faced with trauma in the future. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase How to Be Safe from amazon.com.

The Gray Ghost

Rolls-Royce. Remy and Sam Fargo are back with a different kind of treasure hunt in the latest installment in the Fargo series by Clive Cussler, a novel titled, The Gray Ghost. The title refers to a legendary Rolls-Royce automobile and crimes in contemporary times and decades earlier. There’s a cute connection to Isaac Bell from a different Cussler series that will tickle loyal fans. Most readers will find this thrilling adventure novel to provide reliable entertainment where the protagonists are true to themselves, and the bad guys are caught by the end. Along the way, there’s plenty of hijinks and tension. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Gray Ghost from amazon.com.

Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations

Identity. Amy Chua analyzes the American and global landscape and dissects the ways in which the dominance of political tribes has been the hallmark of major conflicts from Vietnam to the hatred between Sunnis and Shias. In her book titled, Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations, she offers a passionate call for the restoration of a national identity that leads us away from our political corners and into a unity that recognizes and respects our differences and leads us toward bridging what divides us. Those readers interested in public policy will find her observations cogent and interesting. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Political Tribes from amazon.com.

The Animal Gazer

Suffering. By the time I finished reading Edgardo Franzosini’s novel titled, The Animal Gazer, I had extended about as much empathy as I could. This fictionalized account of the life of animal sculptor Rembrandt Bugatti draws us into Paris and World War I and the suffering of citizens and animals. Readers can feel for Rembrandt’s attention to every animal he observes, and the way his observations inform his sculptures, some of which are reproduced in the book. The prose in this translation captivated me. I can only imagine how finely written the original Italian is for those who read the original text. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Animal Gazer from amazon.com.

Wild Chamber

Parks. Fans of the Peculiar Crimes Unit (PCU) mystery series by Christopher Fowler will love the latest installment titled, Wild Chamber. There’s a killer in London’s parks and the PCU team is on the case under pressure from those who want to eliminate the unit. We learn about the title on p. 201 “Remember I told you that the parks were once referred to as London’s wild chambers? They provide the opportune locations, they’re free zones where anything can happen.” As with the earlier installments in this series, Bryant and May have unorthodox ways of solving cases. Fowler also writes some sentences worth reading more than once, including: p. 120 “Colin, stop trying to use unopened parts of your brain.” And: p. 136 “Mr. Dasgupta thinks the old lady is a few ducks short of a funfair…” Rest assured that Bryant and May solve the murders in style, and Fowler is hard at work on the next installment. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Wild Chamber from amazon.com.

The Good Pilot Peter Woodhouse

Dog. The titled of Alexander McCall Smith’s standalone novel, The Good Pilot Peter Woodhouse, refers to a dog who became the mascot for American pilots in England during World War II. Fans of Smith’s uplifting fiction will finish reading this novel awash in good feelings. Smith covers love and friendship in ways that can make a reader come away with a renewed hope in the fundamental goodness of most people. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Good Pilot Peter Woodhouse from amazon.com.

Taduno's Song

Choice. For those readers who look to fiction to transport us to unfamiliar places, consider reading Odafe Atogun’s finely written debut novel titled, Taduno’s Song. Reminiscent of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, the novel presents a love story set within a tyrannical regime. Protagonist Taduno returns to his homeland from exile and finds that while he left as a popular musical celebrity, upon his return no one remembers him. Atogun sets up Taduno to make a difficult choice, and by the time that choice is made, readers will recognize harmony in the decision made for love. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Taduno’s Song from amazon.com.

How Bernie Won: Inside the Revolution That's Taking Back Our Country--and Where We Go from Here

Insider. The manager of Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign, Jeff Weaver, has written an account of that campaign titled, How Bernie Won: Inside the Revolution That's Taking Back Our Country--and Where We Go from Here. Political junkies of any stripe are those readers most likely to enjoy reading this insider’s account of the campaign. I especially enjoyed Weaver’s account of the tense relationship between the Democratic National Committee and the Sanders campaign. Rating: Three-star (It’s ok) Click here to purchase How Bernie Won from amazon.com.

Too Close to Breathe

Frankie. Crime novels can succeed or fail based on whether or not readers like the protagonist. The protagonist of Olivia Kiernan’s debut novel, Too Close to Breathe, is Detective Chief Superintendent Frankie Sheehan, and she is a piece of work. Having just returned to duty after nearly being killed on her last case, she’s not thrilled to dive into another homicide. As readers learn her backstory, and join her sleuthing, we all understand that once Frankie gets started, there’s no stopping her, not even direct orders. I usually enjoy this genre, and this debut of Frankie was well written entertainment for this reader. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Too Close to Breathe from amazon.com.

Wade in the Water

Treat. Most weeks, the only poetry I read comes from The New Yorker. I treated myself to the collection of thirty-two poems by Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith titled, Wade in the Water. The range of this collection is wide and Smith explores much about the United States, past and present, in these poems. We find injustice at the core of one poem and compassion in another. In each, there are perfectly chosen words and images. I gave myself over to Smith’s art and craft and pondered these poems, reading them aloud to hear the music. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Wade in the Water from amazon.com.