Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Hazards of Time Travel

Paths. From the discomfort of the present, Joyce Carol Oates projects to the future and revisits the past in a finely written dystopian novel titled, Hazards of Time Travel. A high school valedictorian in the future uses her commencement speech to exert independence and ask her classmates a series of question. Her behavior doesn’t suit the norms of society, so she finds herself sent to the past for rehabilitation in 1950s Wainscotia, Wisconsin. Oates doesn’t need to tell readers about all the details of both past and future: she makes the settings atmospheric and we fill in the gaps. Our young female protagonist becomes our eyes and ears in both settings. We have many paths projecting from today toward the future. Oates offers one that should scare every reader. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase Hazards of Time Travel from amazon.com.

An Elderly Lady Is Up to No Good

Villain. The protagonist of a group of related stories by Helene Tursten titled, An Elderly Lady Is Up to No Good, is an elderly woman named Maud. For those readers who cheer for the bad guy, Maud will be the ideal villain. Who could possibly think Maud is up to no good? Read these terrific stories to meet a fascinating character who behaves in unexpected ways. You may never look at an elderly woman in the same way again. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase An Elderly Lady Is Up to No Good from amazon.com.

Fire and Blood

Prequel. Please don’t quiz me to differentiate all the characters and dragons in the Game of Thrones prequel by George R.R. Martin, a novel titled, Fire and Blood. Westeros fans have been pressing Martin for the next installment and this 700-page diversion is likely to meet with mixed reviews. Structured as a history, I think it is also book one of another series. The cult of Martin wants him to write faster, and I expect even he has some trouble keeping all the characters straight. For readers who like the world of Westeros, here’s another hefty installment with intrigue, treachery, battles and dragons. I read it in Chicago waiting for Winter to come and was well entertained. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Fire and Blood from amazon.com.

Waiting for Eden

Intensity. Readers who enjoy finely written literary fiction are those most likely to enjoy Elliot Ackerman’s novel titled, Waiting for Eden. Protagonist Eden survived an explosion in Iraq and is at a Texas burn center thanks to the efforts of medical personnel who saved his life. What’s left of Eden weighs 70 pounds, down from his normal 220. Eden’s distinction is that his were the worst wounds of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that didn’t immediately end in death. Eden’s wife Mary has spent three years at his bedside waiting for him to communicate, heal or die. The narrator is a ghost: Eden’s best friend who died in that blast in Iraq, who is also waiting for Eden to join him in death. These three characters are complex, and Ackerman develops them with depth. From the beginning to the end of the novel, Ackerman maintains an intensity while he develops multiple levels of meaning and explores issues of loyalty, suffering and betrayal. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase Waiting for Eden from amazon.com.

Kingdom of the Blind

Drugs. The fourteenth novel in the Chief Inspector Gamache series by Louise Penny is titled, Kingdom of the Blind. While this installment can stand on its own, first time readers will understand context better by holding this book in queue while reading the last two installments. The action in this novel begins as Gamache remains suspended from his job pending an investigation. Dangerous drugs from the case that led to his suspension are about to hit the streets of Montreal. Gamache coolly implements a risky plan to save lives. Penny continues to develop interesting characters with this installment, and contrasts gritty city life with the tranquility of Three Pines. Crime fiction can become formulaic and is often poorly written. Penny crafts some of the best contemporary fiction in this genre and the current novel was a delight to read. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Kingdom of the Blind from amazon.com.

Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women's Anger

Release. I am a man very uncomfortable with anger, both my own and others. Rebecca Traister has become comfortable with her anger and has found healthy ways of releasing her rage. In her book titled, Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women's Anger, Traister asks readers to listen to the source of women’s anger. She asks women to remember the feeling, and to put rage into action. Traister explores women’s history and the forces of subjugation. I encourage any reader, male or female, uncomfortable with aspects of modern life, to listen to Traister’s fine writing, and consider ways in which anger and being mad can lead to good. I’m on board. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase Good and Mad from amazon.com.

Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right's Stealth Plan for America

Assault. Sometimes a historian stumbles into a trove of documents and can connect the dots about past events. After Nancy MacLean ran across economist James Buchanan’s voluminous and overlooked files, she unraveled the secret plan developed by wealthy members of the radical right to shape America in specific ways. In her book titled, Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right's Stealth Plan for America, MacLean describes the history of a libertarian movement and the planned and careful ways in which a minority became the arbiters of how our democracy operates. While MacLean considers these actions as an assault on democracy, some readers will see this book as documentation of the success of a very long plan. Any citizen interested in learning about political power in the United States should consider reading this book. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase Democracy in Chains from amazon.com.

Beautiful Country Burn Again: Democracy, Rebellion, and Revolution

Fiery. Instead of watching the State of the Union address this year, consider reading Ben Fountain’s book titled, Beautiful Country Burn Again: Democracy, Rebellion, and Revolution. His view of how we came to this point and where we are going should disturb every reader. Fountain describes that America’s first crisis was over slavery and led to the Civil War. Our second crisis was the Depression and that led to the New Deal. He views that the country is now ready for a third great reinvention. To bring readers to that point, this book takes us month my month through the 2016 campaign, along with backward looks to lessons from the past. Fountain writes with great skill and passion. He senses something in the air. Maybe you should read this book to see if you agree. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Beautiful Country Burn Again from amazon.com.

Revenant Gun

Finale. Sometimes when a trilogy comes to an end, a reader can wish and hope for another installment. When I closed the 400th or so page of Yoon Ha Lee’s third installment in his Machineries of Empire series, I felt it came to a satisfying ending, and I hope to read not another word. The final novel titled, Revenant Gun, couldn’t stand alone. Readers who enjoy science fiction or fantasy are those readers most likely to be patient enough to devote the time to the three novels in this series. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Revenant Gun from amazon.com.

Hall of Mirrors

Flashback. The fifteenth installment in the Peculiar Crimes Unit series by Christopher Fowler springs a flashback on readers as we return to the lives of Arthur Bryant and John May in 1969. In the novel titled, Hall of Mirrors, Bryant and May are assigned to be sure that a prosecution witness shows up for trial. The witness insists on spending a weekend at a manor house in the country, where Bryant is a fish out of water. When there’s a murder, and the house party is trapped at Tavistock Hall, it’s up to Bryant and May to solve the mystery and save their skins, or at least their jobs. Funny as always, and well-plotted, the mystery is interesting and the characters eccentric and terrific as always. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Hall of Mirrors from amazon.com.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Billion Dollar Whale: The Man Who Fooled Wall Street, Hollywood, and the World

Heists. There’s nothing new about financial fraud, greed and hubris, but the scale of it all provides quite a story in a book by Wall Street Journal reporters Tom Wright and Bradley Hope titled, Billion Dollar Whale: The Man Who Fooled Wall Street, Hollywood, and the World. You may have read their reporting about the Malaysia kleptocracy and the 1MBD scandal involving Goldman Sachs. The book tells us about a young Wharton graduate, Jho Low who knew how to game the system, heisted a fortune for himself and others, at least $4.5 billion, and got lots of senior executives to be swayed by his manipulation. While there’s an entertaining aspect to this story if your money is not at stake, here’s a scary takeaway (p.85): “His was a scheme for the twenty-first century, a truly global endeavor that produced nothing – a shift of cash from a poorly controlled state fund in the developing world, diverting it into the opaque corners of an underpoliced financial system that’s all but broken.” The barn door may still be open. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase Billion Dollar Whale from amazon.com.

Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup

Duped. Many readers may have followed the story of Theranos and CEO Elizabeth Holmes in the business press in recent years, especially the work of The Wall Street Journal’s reporter, John Cerreyrou. In his book titled, Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup, Carreyrou pulls readers into a business scandal involving prominent people who were duped. I hope he sold the book rights to Hollywood, since a screenplay would be great binge-watching melodrama. Holmes worked very hard to suppress Carreyrouy’s reporting of the scandal at Theranos, but her efforts failed. His investigative skills and the help of employees and others got the story right and the bubble that was Theranos burst. Business is usually more boring than this book, so corporate readers can be titillated by this narrative, and all general readers will find a human story of manipulation and deceit and greed that will keep the pages turning quickly. I wonder if one day we will hear Elizabeth Holmes’ side of the story, since she refused Carreyrou’s requests to be interviewed. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase Bad Blood from amazon.com.

Mr. Trump's Wild Ride: The Thrills, Chills, Screams, and Occasional Blackouts of an Extraordinary Presidency

Curated. I really didn’t want to read journalist Major Garrett’s book titled, Mr. Trump’s Wild Ride: The Thrills, Chills, Screams, and Occasional Blackouts of an Extraordinary Presidency. First, I lived through the early Trump Presidency and I have paid attention, so why do I need someone’s rehash? Second, I read enough in newspapers and periodicals about Trump, so why should I bother reading this book? Third, we may need distance, more time, to process what has been important or a distraction during this period. Once I started reading this book, I began to appreciate the benefit in reading a curated first draft of how history may consider the early part of the Trump Presidency. Garrett skillfully sidesteps the distractions and selects what he considers the matters of most significance. History may prove Garrett right or wrong in his take, but this reader liked getting perspective from a talented journalist who’s been in the scrum all the way through. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Mr. Trump’s Wild Ride from amazon.com.

Small Fry

Complex. Choose your own reason for reading Lisa Brennan-Jobs finely written memoir titled, Small Fry. She writes beautifully. She has the skill to be in her life story and to be outside it at the same time. You already know that her late father, Steve Jobs, could be a jerk. He’s not the center of this story, although the father-daughter relationship comes across with love, pain and intimacy. All families are complex. Individuals are packed with strengths and weaknesses. We grow up because of or in spite of the child rearing we received. This memoir reveals the skills of a fine writer and an interesting person. Choose your reason but read this finely written memoir. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Small Fry from amazon.com.


Jake. The debut novel by John A. Vanek features a strange title, Deros, and a daring choice for a protagonist these days: a Catholic priest. Let’s get the title out of the way first: it stands for Date of Expected Return from Overseas. Protagonist Father Jake Austin is a war veteran who trained as a physician, and finds himself assigned to his hometown of Oberlin, Ohio. Vanek portrays Jake as a normal healthy guy, troubled by his wartime service, and prepared to fill in at a parish for an ailing pastor and work at a local hospital. Jake arrives in Oberlin just in time to attend his high school reunion and the stuff that happens then provides the plot for this first novel in a planned series featuring Father Jake. I enjoyed the story and the development of several characters. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Deros from amazon.com.

Wit's End: What Wit Is, How It Works, and Why We Need It

Showing. Witty readers are those most likely to enjoy James Geary’s creative ways of demonstrating wit in his book titled, Wit’s End: What Wit Is, How It Works, and Why We Need It. Instead of telling readers all about wit and analyzing it, he shows us what wit looks like in various forms. I found this book to be quick to read and I appreciated the author’s cleverness. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Wit’s End from amazon.com.


Challenging. Reading is usually more fun than roaming in the stream of consciousness of Anna Burns in her novel titled, Milkman. This book won the Man Booker prize, and that’s why I added it to my reading queue. I recommend this book to patient readers who are comfortable with unusual structure, unnamed characters, and few signposts to help one figure things out. Fans of literary fiction who enjoy finely written prose are those most likely to enjoy this novel. I expect Burns won the prize because of her finely crafted language in this novel. For many readers, it takes more than language to bring reading pleasure. Those readers are warned about this challenging novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Milkman from amazon.com.

Forever and a Day

Origin. Fans of James Bond 007 are those readers most likely to enjoy reading the new prequel to Casino Royale, a novel by Anthony Horowitz titled, Forever and a Day. I especially enjoyed the focus that Horowitz has on the origins of Bond’s work as 007. We see where his cigarette case came from, and his preference for martinis. We learn the test that Bond had to pass to become 007 and what his first case entailed. It’s clear that Horowitz had fun being true to Ian Fleming and to the character of Bond, and I know I had fun reading this installment in the series. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Forever and a Day from amazon.com.

Bone on Bone

Epidemic. The eighth novel by Julia Keller featuring protagonist Bell Elkins is titled, Bone on Bone. Fans of the series will look forward to how the former prosecutor will return to life in Acker’s Gap following her incarceration. What Bell finds is a community ravaged by drug addiction. Keller approaches this theme with insight and sensitivity, continuing to develop this protagonist’s complexity and humanity. Fans will be rewarded by the revelation of a long-held secret by the novel’s end. Along the way, Bell plays a part in helping her community with the drug epidemic. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Bone on Bone from amazon.com.

Washington Black

Freedom. Readers with all kinds of interests are likely to enjoy Esi Edugyan’s novel titled, Washington Black. Those who appreciate finely written prose will delight in her superb writing throughout this novel. Readers who enjoy fiction with interesting and well-developed complex characters will find a host of them in this novel, led by protagonist Wash Black. Fans of historical fiction will enjoy the detail with which Eduygan describes the 19th century from Barbados to England to the Artic. Finally, those readers who enjoy fiction that leads to insights about life will come away from this novel with increased empathy for the suffering of others, with thoughts about the nature of freedom and the nature of slavery. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase Washington Black from amazon.com.

Friday, January 4, 2019

Virgil Wander

Repair. I’ve waited a decade for another novel written by Leif Enger, and having read his novel titled, Virgil Wander, I can imagine that it took him all of a decade to write with such perfection. A small Minnesota Lake Superior town struggles for survival between an industrial past that is gone for good and an uncertain future. Protagonist Virgil Wander requires physical recovery and repair following an auto accident. All characters are yearning for hope, dreaming of a better future, and along the way extending love, care and concern for each other. Virgil’s cinema is a bright spot in the town’s life, and young Bjorn leads the recovery of a sense of community. Readers looking for fine writing and a story of redemption are those most likely to enjoy this finely written novel. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase Virgil Wander from amazon.com.

A Ladder to the Sky

Maurice. Some of the finest protagonists in literature are the despicable ones. John Boyne gives readers the embodiment of our me-first culture in a finely written novel titled, A Ladder to the Sky. Maurice Swift knows how to use others to his advantage, and Boyne knows how to draw readers into Maurice’s world, and lead us into an entertaining adventure of manipulation, deceit and immorality. When all societal norms and golden rules are set to the side, we are left with Maurice who stops at nothing to get what he wants. The writing is terrific, and the critique of ladder climbing is spot on. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase A Ladder to the Sky from amazon.com.

Christmas Cake Murder

Backstory. The 23rd installment in the Hannah Swensen series by Joanne Fluke is titled, Christmas Cake Murder. While the author left fans with cliffhangers about happenings in Hannah’s current life, she diverts attention in this installment to part of Hannah’s backstory. Hannah is preparing to open the bakery business, The Cookie Jar, making her dream come true. While that’s going on, she agrees to help an elderly Lake Eden resident in hospice care experience again the Christmas Ball from decades earlier, an event marked by special deserts, the area in which Hannah will help. The crime in this case is interesting, the recipes typical, and the backstory interesting for those fans who really enjoy this series. Most of the dialogue is as sweet as the cookie recipes. Rating: Three-star (It’s ok) Click here to purchase Christmas Cake Murder from amazon.com.

Saudi America: The Truth About Fracking and How It's Changing the World

Transitions. Financial reporter Bethany McLean has written a compact and engaging book about the energy industry titled, Saudi America: The Truth About Fracking and How It's Changing the World. She describes the transition from what seemed to be “peak oil” in the United States, to the expensive and creative ways in which fracking has reduced reliance on foreign energy sources. McLean tells us about the people, the money, and the science. Whatever you think you know about fracking, read this book, and you’re likely to want to learn even more. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Saudi America from amazon.com.

The Witch Elm

Memory. Fans of Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad novels will discover an unexpected treat in a new standalone novel titled, The Witch Elm. Protagonist and narrator Toby is a complex and interesting character whose memory and reliability fade in and out of a great story. French writes with great skill, and I enjoyed her humor as well as the plot twists. The pacing of the novel matched the gradual recovery in Toby’s body, mind and spirit from physical trauma early in the story. The setting and supporting characters, especially Uncle Hugo, all add to a very satisfying and entertaining novel. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase The Witch Elm from amazon.com.


Foundations. Many of us crave stability and desire some solid foundation to anchor our lives. In her novel titled, Unsheltered, Barbara Kingsolver explores instability and uncertainty during two time periods: today and 100 years ago. She explores the lives of two families united by a house and their common inability to maintain that house as they face societal change and economic hardship. Kingsolver presents a cast of characters who reflect both time periods and highlights the dramatic divisions and differences between individuals in both eras. In the contemporary plotline, a professional working couple have done everything they thought was right, followed the rules, and find themselves in late middle age with little to show for their efforts, and great uncertainty about finding the means to provide for themselves and their dependents. The plotline from the past includes threads to Darwin and to a scientist neighbor whose naturalist observations encourage a teacher whose boss won’t allow him to teach about evolution. Instability is uncomfortable, and the fearful and unstable characters in this novel may disturb some readers. Thoughtful readers will want to talk about this novel with others and share the discomfort. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase Unsheltered from amazon.com.

American Dialogue: The Founders and Us

We. What would our first four United States presidents think about our current situation? In a book titled, American Dialogue: The Founding Fathers and Us, historian Joseph Ellis creates a dialogue of sorts between those founders and the issues we deal with today. By reflecting on our history, past compromises and choices, and the principles underlying our Constitution, readers can gain some perspective on current events. The founders were by no means homogeneous in their views, as anyone who has studied this period knows. Their arguments were thoughtful and principled. The shared objective was to unite different interests to bring meaning to “we the people.” Today, we can use insight about our past to forge unity about those important things we continue to hold in common. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase American Dialogue from amazon.com.


Addicted. The debut novel by Nico Walker titled, Cherry, takes readers into the lives of characters addicted by opioids. Walker develops these characters with skill and helps readers understand the complexity of lives and the choices individuals make every day. There’s darkness and wit in this novel, side by side, including war experience and PTSD. If you know addicts, you will recognize the characters in this novel. If you are far removed from the American opioid crisis, congratulations, and use this novel as a way to understand the ways in which drug addiction takes over one’s life. Walker’s voice is blunt and unblinking and may offend some readers. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Cherry from amazon.com.

1,000 Books to Read Before You Die

Temptation. I should never have picked up a copy of James Mustich’s book titled, 1,000 Books To Read Before You Die. In recent years, I’ve been reading at the pace of about a book a day. My focus has been to try to drink from the fire hose of newly published books and try to select an eclectic sample to match my interests. I was curious to see how many of Mustich’s selected 1,000 I’ve read during my six decades of reading. While I did not read everything Mustich had to say about each book he selected and referenced (actually about 6,000 altogether), I turned every page and was alarmed by how many authors he chose who were totally unfamiliar to me. I think I’ve read over a third of his selections. Now I am tempted toward the two-thirds. I sensed a kindred spirit in Mustich when I read his take on diversity in reading appetite: “No matter their pedigree, inveterate readers read the way they eat – for pleasure as well as nourishment, indulgence as well as education, and sometimes for transcendence, too. Hot dogs one day, haute cuisine the next.” (p. ix) Any reader looking for something interesting to read can use this book to fulfill reading appetites of all sorts. Will I abandon my focus on new books and turn toward the past to recover what I’ve missed along the way? Time will tell. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase 1,000 Books from amazon.com.


Conversational. Place politics aside, and listen to Michelle Obama’s conversational story of her life in her memoir titled, Becoming. From describing her childhood on the South Side of Chicago to life in the White House, she tells her story in ways that are very personal, revealing, and come across as genuine. Her optimism fills every chapter of this book, even when she takes a swipe or two. Whether as daughter, student, lawyer, boss, spouse, mother or first lady, she communicates with wit and candor. Hers is an American story, and I enjoyed ready every page. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase Becoming from amazon.com.