Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Ghost Wall

Abuse. What did you do on your summer vacation? In Sarah Moss’ novel titled, Ghost Wall, protagonist Silvie joins her family in the countryside in the north of England for her father’s favorite leisure activity: an Iron Age reenactment. In addition to her father’s obsession with this unusual activity, he also beats her. In this dark context, Silvie becomes aware that there may be a better way of life outside the ghost wall that her father has built for their family. Fans of literary fiction are those readers most likely to enjoy this short novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Ghost Wall from amazon.com.

The Silent Ones

Justice. The sixth installment in the Father Anselm mystery series by William Brodrick is a novel titled, The Silent Ones. Brodrick tackles the issue of clerical sexual abuse of minors in this novel and offers readers a sensitive and complex plot in which we accompany Father Anselm in figuring out what happened. The title refers to the victims of abuse, and this quote (pp. 100-101) captures part of the treatment of this topic: ‘“If you fail,’ said Littlemore, ‘then it’s not only Harry who’ll suffer. There are many others. They are the Silent Ones. They live and die in their own private hell. You can take the first step that might help them find their voice. They’ve been lied to and cheated. Their goodwill has been exploited. They’ve said yes to a cover-up when they should have said no. You can do something to change all that.’” Readers who enjoy complicated mysteries with well-drawn characters and good writing should consider this novel and this series. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Silent Ones from amazon.com.

Identity Crisis: The 2016 Presidential Campaign and the Battle for the Meaning of America

Ripe. If it’s not too soon for you to stand back and examine the 2016 United States Presidential election, consider reading a book titled, Identity Crisis: The 2016 Presidential Campaign and the Battle for the Meaning of America, by John Sides, Michael Tesler and Lynn Vavreck. Using lots of data and charts, the authors describe an electorate ripe with the conditions necessary to elect President Trump. While I think the authors provide a comprehensive view of the conditions at play in that election, it’s still a bit too soon for me to look back at that time, and to think that any valuable perspective can be gained at this time. Political junkies and data nerds are those readers most likely to enjoy this book. Rating: Three-star (It’s ok) Click here to purchase Identity Crisis from amazon.com.

Strike Your Heart

Jealousy. Some fiction writers enjoy writing hundreds and hundreds of pages to flesh out stories about our human condition. Amélie Nothomb condenses lots of insight about life into a novel of just over one hundred pages titled, Strike Your Heart. Protagonist Diana is the firstborn child of a beautiful woman named Marie. Their relationship, marked by Marie’s jealousy of Diana, provides the core of this finely written novel. Alienated from Marie, Diana finds relationships with other women and those are fraught with turmoil. I expect that any book club that selects this novel with lead to revelation of one’s own maternal and sibling relationships and an extra glass of wine or two. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Strike Your Heart from amazon.com.

Tell Them of Battles, Kings, and Elephants

Commission. I relaxed into the flow of Mathias Énard’s novel titled, Tell Them of Battles, Kings, and Elephants, in which he describes the time that Michelangelo Buonarotti spent in Constantinople designing a bridge for the Sultan that would cross the Golden Horn. This novel is an homage to art and to the artist, and while I read the lyrical English translation, I can only assume that in French the poetry must soar. This is a short and quirky novel which draws from some historical fragments. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Tell Them of Battles from amazon.com.

Sleep of Memory

Places. Life goes on in the small moments just as well as in the great events. Patrick Modiano explores the nature of our recollections in a novel titled, Sleep of Memory. After I finished the book, I thought of the closing line spoken by the nihilist played by Greta Garbo at the end of the tumultuous 1932 movie, Grand Hotel: “people come, people go, nothing ever happens.” That line followed lots of large and small happenings. Modiano takes us into recollections of the small moments from the past, in neighborhoods of Paris, where a person can seem to be departed from the world after moving from one neighborhood to another. This is an atmospheric novel, very focused on place, and a gentle way for readers to think about places and memory. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Sleep of Memory from amazon.com.

Go Ask Fannie

Secrets. Each of us is an observer and participant in family dynamics. Sometimes fiction can help us observe family relationships in other people whose nature is just as human as ours and can lead to insight. In her novel titled, Go Ask Fannie, Elizabeth Hyde presents us with a dad, 81-year-old Murray Blaire, and his adult children, Ruth, George and Lizzie gathered together on Murray’s farm for a weekend. Gradually, we learn about two other Blaires: a wife and mom, Lillian, and a son and brother, Daniel. Family secrets are at the core of this novel, and the power of the past to be ever-present. Readers looking for a little distance from one’s own family dynamics can spend a few enjoyable hours with the Blaire family and all of their dysfunction. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Go Ask Fannie from amazon.com.

None of My Business

Yuks. The latest humorous commentaries on contemporary American life by P.J. O’Rourke are contained in a new book titled, None of My Business. O’Rourke’s wit and funny observations are often entertaining, and it won’t take a reader very long to zip through these three hundred pages. I found his usual curmudgeon dialed down a bit in this book, and that his stride seemed best on a subject like bitcoin where his writing soars. Readers looking for an entertaining diversion should consider reading this book. Rating: Three-star (It’s ok) Click here to purchase None of My Business from amazon.com.

Training School for Negro Girls

Range. I enjoyed the range of experience represented in the characters in each of the stories in the debut collection by Camille Acker titled, Training School for Negro Girls. The situations, mostly set in the District of Columbia, are recognizable and insightful. I especially enjoyed Mambo Sauce, in which a black woman who moved from Brooklyn interacted with the owners and patrons of a neighborhood food joint. The contrast between how Constance and her white boyfriend approached the mambo sauce and the restaurant was perfect. Short stories can leave some readers wanting more exposition, but I found in each of these stories, Acker gets the genre just right: we glimpse into the lives of people we recognize and the ways in which they behave tell us something about human nature. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Training School for Negro Girls from amazon.com.


Creepy. Those who have read previous novels by Michael Harvey know that he can really tell a good story. In his novel titled, Pulse, Harvey takes us back to Boston in the 1970s. His prose brings to life the rawness of the Combat Zone and the racial tensions in the city. We get a crime story with murder, bad cops, and enough foul language to last the year. We also get the creepiest protagonist in a long time, sixteen-year-old orphan Daniel Fitzsimmons. His landlord explores with Daniel how the mind can use energy to send pulses to others to push them in desired ways. Daniel tries the technique on his girlfriend with humorous results. The creepy part comes from what seems to be Daniel’s foreknowledge of events. There’s something for any eclectic reader in this novel: fascinating characters, thrilling action, crimes, and an otherworldly something. Maybe Harvey will set his next novel back in Chicago where everything is normal. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Pulse from amazon.com.

Monday, March 18, 2019

An Orchestra of Minorities

Sorrow. The omniscient narrator of Chigozie Obioma’s novel titled, An Orchestra of Minorities, is the guardian spirit of protagonist Chinonso. Obioma allows this chi to weave slowly the life story of Chinonso, a naïve chicken farmer, whose life choices toward joy lead to sorrow and pain. Nonso falls in love with a woman named Ndali, who is from a very wealthy family who consider Nonso too far beneath them in station to be worthy enough for the lovers to marry. I was delighted by all the twists and turns in Nonso’s life, and the ways in which Obioma uncovers the dimensions of good and evil in the world and in ourselves. Many pages explore the process of forgiveness. For those readers who find that some of the sections of the novel seem to move too slowly, I encourage you at those times to focus on the fine descriptive language throughout the novel and wait for momentum to resume. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase An Orchestra of Minorities from amazon.com.

Enemy of the People: Trump's War on the Press, the New McCarthyism, and the Threat to American Democracy

Sobering. Journalist Marvin Kalb has written a sober and passionate book about the importance of a free press in his book titled, Enemy of the People: Trump's War on the Press, the New McCarthyism, and the Threat to American Democracy. Kalb calls Trump, not the press, the real enemy of the people. Using his personal experience as a foreign correspondent in Russia, and his experience during the McCarthy investigations, Kalb reinforces that a free press is the best guarantor of a free society, and efforts to suppress the press are despotic acts, not the signs of a thriving democratic system. Words matter and leadership can influence public views for better or for worse. Readers interested in public policy and the state of our democracy and its threats should consider reading this measured comparison of our current situation to the ideals we hold. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Enemy of the People from amazon.com.

To Obama: With Love, Joy, Anger, and Hope

Empathy. Have you ever wondered what people write in letters to the President of the United States? Are you curious about how those letters are handled, and what responses are made? If so, you’re the reader most likely to enjoy Jeanne Marie Laskas’ book titled, To Obama: With Love, Joy, Anger, and Hope. Laskas reprints selected letters sent to President Obama during his term in office. She focuses on the process used to select ten letters to the President that were selected every day from the huge amount of incoming mail and given to him so he had one more way of keeping in touch with everyday people and their concerns. The individual voices of the letter writers tell great stories about these people, often in just a few sentences. The responses consistently convey the message that the letter writer had been heard. This empathy lifted my spirits as I read this engaging and interesting book. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase To Obama from amazon.com.

I Might Regret This: Essays, Drawings, Vulnerabilities, and Other Stuff

Anxieties. Fans of Comedy Central’s series, Broad Street, are those readers most likely to enjoy reading co-star Abbi Jacobson’s book titled, I Might Regret This: Essays, Drawings, Vulnerabilities, and Other Stuff. This creative artist writes with humor and quirkiness, revealing lots of her anxieties and issues. Failing to sleep in hotel rooms during a roadtrip, bagels she’s loved, and love woes are all fodder for Jacobson’s reflections. She even includes some of her artwork. Whether she regrets making herself vulnerable through this work is something left unaddressed, as the title indicates. Rating: Three-star (It’s ok) Click here to purchase I Might Regret This from amazon.com.

Shortest Way Home: One Mayor's Challenge and a Model for America's Future

Refreshing. I’m continuing my reading journey through books by the various aspirants for becoming the next President of the United States. South Bend mayor Pete Buttigeig offers a refreshing life story in his book titled, Shortest Way Home: One Mayor's Challenge and a Model for America's Future. Born in South Bend in 1982, this Harvard graduate and Rhodes scholar worked at McKinsey, is a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, has served as mayor of his hometown since 2012 and married a guy in 2018. He makes a case for leadership by individuals like him from an age cohort with a lot at stake about the next few decades. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Shortest Way Home from amazon.com.

Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother's Will to Survive

Poverty. Most readers don’t have a clue about what it is like to be poor in the United States today. Thanks to Stephanie Land’s finely written memoir titled, Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother's Will to Survive, there’s no excuse for not gaining an understanding about people usually out of sight and out of mind. Life is a daily peril, one illness or accident leading toward financial catastrophe. The amount of time Land spent proving her need to social service providers took away from her time spent working hard as a maid for minimum wage. Making too much money as a maid could lead to the loss of more valuable housing or nutritional support payment. I feel much better informed about one aspect of poverty in contemporary American life, and I’m thinking again about the advantages of a universal basic income. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase Maid from amazon.com.

Prisoner: My 544 Days in an Iranian Prison—Solitary Confinement, a Sham Trial, High-Stakes Diplomacy, and the Extraordinary Efforts It Took to Get Me Out

Harrowing. A memoir can introduce readers to individuals similar to us in some ways and different in others. In his book titled, Prisoner: My 544 Days in an Iranian Prison—Solitary Confinement, a Sham Trial, High-Stakes Diplomacy, and the Extraordinary Efforts It Took to Get Me Out, Washington Post journalist Jason Rezian tells us the harrowing story of his ordeal in Iran during 2014 and 2015. While he writes from the perspective of his life after he returned home to the United States, I marveled at his description of how he dealt with imprisonment in Iran. He seemed to maintain hope humor and discipline while being anguished at his predicament. There’s a love story here, lots of humor, and a clear view of life from the inside of Iran. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Prisoner from amazon.com.

The Undressing

Contemplation. When was the last time you read a poem? How about a collection of poems? Every time I open a collection of poems, I vow to read more poetry. A fine collection I can recommend to any reader is Li-Young Lee’s book titled, The Undressing. These poems are grounded in God, love and spirituality, although the words may not always convey that. This book can be a source for well-spent contemplation. These are words of love, peace, and passion in the context of the refugee experience and violence around the world. We want to understand why we are here, and these poems can lead us toward such understanding. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Undressing from amazon.com.


Wax. Readers who love historical fiction are those most likely to be delighted by Edward Carey’s novel titled, Little, the story of the orphan who became Madame Tussaud. After the death of tiny Marie’s parents, she is apprenticed to a man who makes sculptures out of wax. Marie learns this art from him, and they find themselves living in Revolutionary Paris and exhibiting wax heads. We all know what happened to heads during the French Revolution, and Carey places Marie in the middle of the action. If you’ve ever wondered how Madame Tussaud got started, you’re likely to love this novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Little from amazon.com.

Notes from the Fog

Mordant. In each of the baker’s dozen of stories in a collection by Ben Marcus titled, Notes from the Fog, readers are likely to wince or laugh and experience a focused barb at contemporary life. Few readers will finish these stories feeling that they’ve read it all before. Marcus’ originality comes across as fresh and alert to the consequences of trends in modern life. Fans of literary fiction who appreciate fine writing are those readers most likely to appreciate these short stories. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Notes from the Fog from amazon.com.

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

The Perfect Liar

Chilling. Fans of thrillers will enjoy the characters and plot of the latest novel by Thomas Christopher Greene titled, The Perfect Liar. Protagonists Susannah and Max have moved from Manhattan to rural Vermont with her fifteen-year-old son. There are secrets that Susannah and Max keep from each other, and someone seems on the brink of revealing a secret to the world. Greene keeps the tension taut throughout the fewer than three hundred pages of this novel. I’m not often surprised by the time the climax occurs, but this one caught me, and I couldn’t be more pleased with that. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Perfect Liar from amazon.com.

Once Upon a River

Thames. A river is both constant and changing. Close your eyes for just a moment while meandering down a river and you may lose a sense of where you are. From the beginning to the end of Diane Setterfield’s novel titled, Once Upon a River, the Thames is present, constant and changing. The action starts dramatically at the Swan, an inn on the Thames that’s the locus for community storytelling, on the longest night of the year, when a drenched stranger barges through the door of the inn carrying what looks like a doll and he collapses to the floor. What looked like a doll then appears to be a dead girl who then revives despite not registering a heartbeat when checked. No one knows who she is. After that dramatic opening, Setterfield calms readers down and sets us on a meandering journey forward and backward in time as three different families believe they know the identity of the girl. Impatient readers may find the diversions tedious, but for those readers who are patient with a large cast of characters and who have plenty of time to let the tale spin out, there’s a well-told story here and some entertaining hours spent by the Thames. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Once Upon a River from amazon.com.

The Coronation

Abduction. I like to read entertaining mystery novels, especially those that keep me guessing long into the narrative. The first novel I’ve read by Boris Akunin is titled, The Coronation, and features a recurring protagonist and private investigator, Erast Petrovich Fandorin. The four-year-old son of a Grand Duke has been abducted shortly before the coronation of Tsar Nicholas II. Ransom requests for royal jewels, including ones that would be visible at the coronation add to the urgency of finding the boy. Fandorin uses great skills at disguise and assimilation with criminals to try to solve the crime. Akunin develops the characters with skill and keeps the plot momentum at a fast pace. Readers who enjoy mysteries, especially in a historical setting, are those most likely to enjoy this novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Coronation from amazon.com.

Downhill from Here: Retirement Insecurity in the Age of Inequality

Reality. There’s no shortage of big issues to worry about from global climate change to terrorism. For a sober reality check on the inability of most Americans to ever stop working before death, read Katherine S. Newman’s book titled, Downhill from Here: Retirement Insecurity in the Age of Inequality. Most Americans over age 55 have no retirement savings. The financial crisis wiped out home equity for many. Social Security will cover a little over a third of pre-retirement income. Pensions have either been diminished or eliminated. What’s at the bottom of the hill of aging? Poverty. Newman tells a lot of personal stories that pack a wallop in this book, especially of those people who thought they were doing the right things and now face the reality that promises made to them have been broken. Readers interested in public policy, especially those who would like to retire one day should consider reading this book and gaining a sober reality check about the future. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Downhill from Here from amazon.com.

Leadership: In Turbulent Times

Context. Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin knows how to present history to general readers: tell great stories to support key points and provide context for the time periods and people. She’s spent decades of her life researching and writing about four American Presidents who she calls “her guys:” Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson. In her book titled, Leadership: In Turbulent Times, she uses the lens of leadership to examine the context in which these four men acquired the ability to help the country achieve great things. The presidents come alive through her writing and we understand their humanity and complexity. Their formative experiences in life, especially their struggles, provide them with the mettle to do a great job at leading a country through crisis. Readers who love history that’s entertaining to read should consider reading this terrific book. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase Leadership in Turbulent Times from amazon.com.

The Threat: How the FBI Protects America in the Age of Terror and Trump

Service. Chances are that any reader will come to Andrew McCabe’s book titled, The Threat: How the FBI Protects America in the Age of Terror and Trump, with positive or negative views about the former acting FBI director. I opened the book expecting him to tell his side of a story that plastered the news and to attack President Trump. Instead, I read a finely written account of a life of government service and how the Federal Bureau of Investigation does its job. He describes the well-controlled processes followed by the Bureau and takes readers inside the investigative process. Any reader interested in public policy should read this book and reflect on the state of our government and its institutions. He spends very little time promoting himself and many pages talking about the investigative process and the importance of doing things by the book. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase The Threat from amazon.com.

Sea of Greed

Energy. Kurt Austin and the team from NUMA are back for the fourteenth installment in the NUMA Files series by Clive Cussler in a novel titled, Sea of Greed. A terrific female villain, Tessa Franco, has invested in a method to eliminate reliance on oil as a source of energy. As with all the novels in this series, the technology is intriguing, the action is fast-paced, and the heroes always beat the bad guys. Despite that predictability, this novel and the series can provide satisfying entertainment that doesn’t demand much thought. Rating: Three-star (It’s ok) Click here to purchase Sea of Greed from amazon.com.

A Shot in the Dark

Clever. Lynn Truss kicks off a new crime fiction series set in the 1950s featuring Brighton Police Constable Twitten with a novel titled, A Shot in the Dark. Constable Twitten is a delightfully annoying smart aleck who rubs his colleagues the wrong way. Truss combines humor and satire with a traditional police procedural plot and produces a novel that was very entertaining to this reader. The more you know about Brighton and crime novels, the funnier this book will be for you. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase A Shot in the Dark from amazon.com.

No Sunscreen for the Dead

Vengeance. Readers who have laughed through the Serge Storms series by Tim Dorsey are those most likely to enjoy the 22nd installment, a novel titled, No Sunscreen for the Dead. The current stop for Serge and Coleman’s Florida escapade is The Villages where the guys want to observe seniors in their natural habitat. As Serge gets to know some residents, he becomes a man with a mission: exact vengeance on behalf of those of the greatest generation who have been exploited by others. He recovers their swindled funds and delivers creative justice to the bad guys. If you like wacky humor and can tolerate a lot of violence, this novel will be a funny and entertaining treat. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase No Sunscreen for the Dead from amazon.com.

The Night Agent

Mole. Fans of spy fiction are those readers most likely to enjoy a novel by Matthew Quirk titled, The Night Agent. Protagonist Peter Sutherland is an FBI agent whose latest assignment is a special desk in the White House Situation Room. Before long, Peter is in the middle of a spy network that includes a highly placed Russian mole. Peter’s late father was suspected of being a Russian spy, so the FBI has never fully trusted Peter. The characters are interesting, the plot twists exciting and the resolution very satisfying. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Night Agent from amazon.com.