Monday, September 24, 2018

John Woman

History. Walter Mosley has given readers interesting and eccentric characters before and has often been provocative in his plot and philosophy. In his novel titled, John Woman, Mosley begins with the formative years of a young man named Cornelius Jones, and transforms the boy into a controversial history professor named John Woman. In my view, this character is Mosley’s finest yet, and the provocative nature of the plot is delivered with great skill. Readers may not think of history in the same way after reading this book, and whatever it is that one feels guilty about will come to some reckoning because there are consequences for our actions. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase John Woman from

The World as It Is: A Memoir of the Obama White House

Clearheaded. I enjoyed every minute I spent reading Ben Rhodes finely written book titled, The World As It Is: A Memoir of the Obama White House. Rhodes worked as a speechwriter and deputy national security advisor, serving as an aide to President Obama during the entire administration. His reflections are clear and finely written: readers get an insider’s view of the White House, and readers get to spend time with an intelligent young man whose idealism and perspective and humanity appear on every well-written page of this book. Many political memoirs are so slanted in perspective that they come across as grossly incomplete. Here, we get a broad perspective, warts and all, of a young man’s complete and formative experience in the job and opportunity of a lifetime. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase The World As It Is from

Desolation Mountain

Dream. Fans of the long-running Cork O’Connor mystery series by William Kent Krueger are those readers most likely to enjoy the seventeenth installment, a novel titled, Desolation Mountain. All those readers will enjoy becoming reacquainted with the large cast of interesting and complex characters. Cork’s son, Stephen, has had a dream vision that he is trying to figure out with Henry. Following a mysterious plane crash on Desolation Mountain, part of the dream begins to make sense. The plot of this novel includes faster paced action than usual for this series, and I know I read this novel faster than I usually do. Krueger masters setting, plot and character development in ways that continue to please fans of this series. I was thoroughly entertained. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Desolation Mountain from

Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors, and the Drug Company that Addicted America

Crisis. I’ve paid intermittent attention to the opioid crisis in America, having read articles every now and then about increasing rates of addiction, about the Sackler family and Purdue Pharma, and the struggles of some rural communities to respond to the crisis. Now that I’ve read Beth Macy’s book titled, Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors, and the Drug Company that Addicted America, I better understand the scope of the crisis which is larger and more sinister than I had imagined. Greed and negligence have combined to kill and cripple too many people for too long. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Dopesick from

Island of the Mad

Misbehaving. The fifteenth installment in the Mary Russell Sherlock Holmes series by Laurie R. King is titled, Island of the Mad. A friend asks Mary to find a missing Aunt, and clues lead her to Venice. Meanwhile, Sherlock’s brother, Mycroft, wants some reliable intelligence about the rise of the Fascists in Italy. The mystery is well-plotted, the settings perfectly described and the whimsy always pleasant. In Venice, there are costumes and masks, and Sherlock ends up meeting and playing with Cole Porter. In the spirit of “anything goes” the hijinks are delightful, and I was well-entertained during the time spent reading this novel. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase Island of the Mad from

The Fall of Gondolin

Versions. During his lifetime, J.R.R. Tolkien produced multiple versions of fragmented stories that remained incomplete at the time of his death. His son and literary executor, Christopher Tolkien, has assembled versions of one of those stories in a book titled, The Fall of Gondolin. I might have enjoyed each version of this story fifty years ago at the time I first read The Lord of the Rings. Today, I found myself gaining an increased understanding of the plight of a literary executor going over lots of pages of unfinished works and trying to make sense of it all. This is likely to be the last work by Tolkien to be published, so longtime fans are those readers most likely to enjoy reading every fragment that adds to the world of Tolkien. Rating: Three-star (It’s ok) Click here to purchase The Fall of Gondolin from

Unhinged: An Insider's Account of the Trump White House

Loyalty. Many readers of the tell-all book by former Trump apprentice and White House staffer Omarosa Manigault Newman titled, Unhinged: An Insider's Account of the Trump White House, will find support on these pages for positions already held. Supporters of the President will find a story of vengeance by a disgruntled fired employee. Trump opponents will find lots of gossipy tidbits about the chaos in the President himself and in White House operations. I found myself reflecting about loyalty and what it takes to gain it and how it can be lost. Omarosa’s many years of loyalty to Trump was a response to the ways in which he aided her career. Once scorned, her loyalty died, and her story is now placed in a context under her control and in her version, her dignity and character remain intact. Rating: Three-star (It’s ok) Click here to purchase Unhinged from


Misogyny. Fans of dystopian fiction are those readers most likely to enjoy the debut novel by Christine Dalcher titled, Vox. The President of the United States has been elected to implement the agenda of a charismatic fundamentalist religious leader that has a few key principles of misogyny: a woman’s place is in the home and she must be subordinate to her husband who makes all decisions for the family. Step by step over the course of a year, a program to silence women changes society. Dalcher engages readers in the plot through a terrific protagonist, Dr. Jean McClellan, and with speculation on how this situation happened. A frequent conclusion reached comes from Edmund Burke: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” While lots of good people ignored the developing threats, some resisted. While Jean was surprised by the resistance, another character made it plain: there’s always a resistance. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Vox from

The Quiet Side of Passion

Intervention. The twelfth novel in the Isabel Dalhousie series by Alexander McCall Smith is titled, The Quiet Side of Passion. Isabel is working too hard: as a philosopher, as a Mom, and for her niece, Cat, for free at the cafĂ©. With Jamie’s encouragement, Isabel gets help from two women: one to help care for the house, and the other to help edit the Review of Applied Ethics. Through her son, Charlie, Isabel meets a woman named Patricia and learns things that make Isabel want to intervene to set things right. All the developing relationships are interesting, and there are consequences that must be faced on multiple fronts. All in all, this is a delightful installment in a series that I’ve liked reading. I always feel better about human behavior after spending time with Isabel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Quiet Side of Passion from

That Kind of Mother

Understanding. The finely written prose of Rumaan Alam’s novel titled, That Kind of Mother, is one reason for fans of literary fiction to pick up this book. I recommend the novel for those readers who enjoy the discovery of psychological insight and gaining understanding of human behavior. For a male writer, Alam shows remarkable understanding of women, especially protagonist Rebecca. The novel delves into class, race, parenting and how we bridge differences and gaps in understanding. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase That Kind of Mother from

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

The Shakespeare Requirement

Slapstick. The wit in Julie Schumacher’s novel titled, The Shakespeare Requirement, tickled all my funny bones. Who knew that a university could be the ideal location for real slapstick humor? Any reader whose patience in meetings becomes strained will feel connected to parts of this book. The thankless role of a department chair falls to protagonist Jason Fitger, and the eccentric colleagues in the English department come alive on these pages. The buzzwords and antics of the administration and the successful Economics department kept me smiling, and what better name could Schumacher have chosen for the institution: Payne University? Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Shakespeare Requirement from

My Year of Rest and Relaxation

Sleep. Most psychiatrists would propose engagement with others as a way to deal with alienation, and many patients would consider that path. The young female protagonist of Ottessa Moshfegh’s novel titled, My Year of Rest and Relaxation, chooses another way to deal with her situation: sleep. I laughed at the ways in which she gets her very strange psychiatrist to prescribe loads of pills to help her sleep. The prose is so finely written and the narrative so perfectly crafted that despite the sleeping, there is a high energy maintained throughout the novel. When there are just a handful of pages left to read, we are snapped out of our own drugged state as Moshfegh delivers a perfect ending. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase My Year of Rest and Relaxation from

The Shortest Way Home

Sweet. The protagonist of Miriam Parker’s debut novel titled, The Shortest Way Home, is ready to complete her MBA in California and move to New York to take a great job for which she beat many worthy competitors. While Hannah is spending a weekend in Sonoma a new dream displaces the old one. Most young adults veer a bit on the path to finding one’s place in the world. Hannah pulls a full about face. However improbable her story, Hannah is a sweet character and Parker encourages readers to laugh with the consequences of Hannah’s actions and root for her dream to come true. Rating: Three-star (It’s ok) Click here to purchase The Shortest Way Home from

The Middleman

Disaffected. Fans of thrillers and plot turns are those readers most likely to enjoy Olen Steinhauer’s novel titled, The Middleman. A pied piper to the disaffected, Martin Bishop, taps into what those people want, and he bands them together into a movement called the Massive Brigade. The FBI, especially agent Rachel Proulx, is on the case, and Steinhauer uses her to dig deeply no matter where the trail leads. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Middleman from

Away with Words: An Irreverent Tour Through the World of Pun Competitions

Punderdome. I expected more puns in the book by Joe Berkowitz titled, Away with Words: An Irreverent Tour Through the World of Pun Competitions. The subtitle should have warned me that the content had more than just puns. I enjoyed spending time with Berkowitz on his journey to events like Punderdome. While I appreciate a good pun, I had no idea that pun competitions were even a thing. Berkowitz makes his own excursion into this world fun to read, and his descriptions of the major punners were a delight to read. Did I really reach the end of my brief review without making a pun? Rating: Three-star (It’s ok) Click here to purchase Away with Words from

Our Kind of Cruelty

Games. Fans of dark psychological fiction are those readers most likely to enjoy reading Araminta Hall’s novel titled, Our Kind of Cruelty. V and Mike have a relationship built around a game involving desire and an irregular line between a made-up sex game and reality. After V marries Angus, Mike believes this is a sham wedding and part of the extended game, so he remains in love with V and tries to suss the next move in the game. Hall draws readers into Mike’s troubled mind as the story grows ever darker. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Our Kind of Cruelty from

A Kind of Freedom

Suffering. Margaret Wilkerson Sexton’s finely written debut novel titled, A Kind of Freedom, is set in New Orleans from World War II until after Hurricane Katrina. Sexton presents the story through three well-developed characters: Evelyn, her daughter, Jackie, and Jackie’s son, T.C. Each generation suffers, sometimes in similar ways. Using fewer than three hundred pages, Sexton develops setting, character and story with great skill and insight. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase A Kind of Freedom from

Heads of the Colored People

Identity. A collection of short stories by Nafissa Thompson-Spires is titled, Heads of the Colored People. The stories are dark, funny, poignant and finely written. Thompson-Spires explores identity and vulnerability with great skill. She deals with the challenge of social media and violence and just what it means to be a person of color living in the United States today. There’s a blend of head and heart in each of these stories, and Thompson-Spires has insight into deep wisdom and a range of strong emotions. I enjoyed each story in this finely written collection. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Heads of the Colored People from

Give Me Your Hand

Friendship. In her novel titled, Give Me Your Hand, Megan Abbott presents the relationship between two women, Kit and Diane. Just when we begin to think we understand these women, things are not as they appear. Secrets have great power, and ambition can be a powerful force in life. Rivalry takes many forms. Abbott weaves all that together in ways that will remind all readers that life never proceeds in a straight line, and what you think is going on might be far from what’s happening. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Give Me Your Hand from

A Whispered Name

Substitute. I’m a sucker for novels that delve into moral complexity. One book in the Father Anselm series by William Broderick, a novel titled, A Whispered Name, explores the decisions made during wartime and the secrets and consequences that followed. One soldier substitutes himself for someone else, and decades later, Father Anselm unravels the reasons why, and the role of his mentor in what happened. I expected to be reading a quick mystery, and instead I slowed down as the discernment of right from wrong got muddied, and I paid close attention, to great satisfaction. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase A Whispered Name from

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Children of Blood and Bone

Magic. Why did I wait months before I read the debut novel by Tomi Adeyemi titled, Children of Blood and Bone? I spent several delightful hours immersed in this story of a fight for the restoration of magic and a way of life. There are well-developed interesting characters, and a plot that maintained tension for over five hundred pages. I loved the characters and the story and look forward to the second book in this series. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Children of Blood and Bone from

Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics

Insights. While I hate the staging of Shakespeare’s plays in non-traditional ways, I love the ways in which those settings reveal the wisdom and insights about life from the plays that cross all time periods. In his book titled, Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics, Stephen Greenblatt focuses on the ways in which Shakespeare presented tyrants and populism in different plays. With many countries run by autocrats today, the insights about behavior and institutions from this book are timely. Teachers can use this book as another example of why Shakespeare is relevant, and why students should experience a wide range of these works. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Tyrant from

Deviate: The Science of Seeing Differently

Perceptions. Neuroscientist Beau Lotto blows my mind. In his book titled, Deviate: The Science of Seeing Differently, he explains how our brains have not evolved to see things accurately. It’s all about perceptions, and Lotto explains how that part of science operates. Finally, we can appreciate why others see things differently! Perception is subjective. The book is packed with optical illusions that support Lotto’s messages. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Deviate from

A Taste for Vengeance

Complete. The thirteenth installment in the Bruno, Chief of Police series by Martin Walker is titled, A Taste for Vengeance. This time out, the Dordogne village of St. Denis revels in the success of girls’ rugby and is threatened by IRA criminals in the neighborhood. In the middle of everything is Bruno, who has gotten a promotion. What Walker does so well in this novel and in the series is allow readers to see this interesting protagonist in all aspects of his interesting life: as policeman, coach, cook, friend, lover, etc. During the course of the same day, we spend time with Bruno in each of those roles, and also caring for his dog and riding his horse. Make yourself something tasty to eat, pair a wine, and sit down to read this novel, or any of the ones in the series. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase A Taste for Vengeance from

Damnation Island: Poor, Sick, Mad, and Criminal in 19th-Century New York

Grim. I will never look at the East River and Roosevelt Island in the same way again, thanks to reading Stacy Horn’s book titled, Damnation Island: Poor, Sick, Mad, and Criminal in 19th-Century New York. It was a grim time for lots of people on the island when they were living in prisons, an insane asylum, hospitals and an almshouse. This is a bleak tale of horrific conditions for the most vulnerable members of our community. While the subtitle makes it seem as if there is an old story, conditions remained horrific through the second half of the 20th century. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Damnation Island from

Good Trouble

Vulnerability. Great writers tell us things about ourselves and the world in which we live that seem obvious only after the telling. In the eleven stories of the collection by Joseph O’Neill titled, Good Trouble, there’s great insight into our modern condition and our struggles. I loved the story in which one character was unable to get anyone to give him a reference so he could rent in a New York City co-op. Nothing could better describe this aspect of being solitary in a crowded world. O’Neill explores contemporary loneliness and isolation and holds a mirror and a magnifying glass for us to examine modern life and our many individual insecurities and vulnerabilities. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Good Trouble from

Last Stories

Finale. The ten short stories by William Trevor in the collection titled, Last Stories, are a joy to read. Trevor died in 2016, and his artistry is on display in each of these stories. He had the ability to let us glimpse into the lives of others with such insight that within a few pages we can appreciate a complete life. Trevor narrows into something that seems small with such precision and grace that from this intensity, much is revealed. We look to fine literary fiction to tell us stories about who we are. This collection does just that. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Last Stories from


Range. Fans of short stories can devour forty-five well-written ones in a collection by Thomas McGuane titled, Cloudbursts. I marveled at the range of characters, place and situation that McGuane offers. This is solid writing by a real craftsman. Within all the constraints of short fiction, every story is complete: we understand these people, their situations, and the range of behavior that they exhibit. There are no clunkers here. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Cloudbursts from

The Last Cruise

Adrift. After not too many pages into Kate Christensen’s novel titled, The Last Cruise, it became easy to anticipate how different characters are likely to behave when placed under stress. Christensen doesn’t disappoint; we see a wide range of human behavior by a large cast of interesting characters. A vintage ocean liner is taking a final voyage and the guests are being treated to an experience like one would have experienced onboard in 1950. With that backdrop, we glimpse at characters above and below decks. After engine failure sends them adrift, the true colors of each character are revealed. Once adrift, things remain unsettled through the last page. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Last Cruise from


Trifecta. James A. McLaughlin builds three elements simultaneously in his debut novel titled, Bearskin. First, he tells a terrific story that gets better as readers engage with the plot. Second, his descriptive language uses beautiful prose that makes the setting, a remote area in the Virginia mountains, come alive. Finally, he develops a protagonist, Rice Moore, as a complex character who demands solitude and has chosen what he thinks is a perfect hiding place as he works as a caretaker for a large private landholder. Life has a way of disrupting one’s plans, and McLaughlin keeps unraveling a story we want to hear as he uses beautiful language and lets Rice develop relationships that lead him to actions with consequences. I loved every minute on the mountain with Rice. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase Bearskin from