Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland

Troubles. Patrick Radden Keefe has written a compelling history of the troubles in Northern Ireland titled, Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland. Keefe uses the story of Jean McConville, a mother of ten, to pull readers away from cold facts about the conflict and into the human impact on particular people. Filled with personal stories, betrayals and violence, this book covers both the past and the present with skill and insight. With Jean McConville in our minds from the early part of the book, Keefe uses the bulk of the book to elaborate on the actions of leaders including Gerry Adams and Margaret Thatcher. When I read about the recordings at Boston College that were made with an expectation of secrecy but were released to be used in criminal prosecutions, I saw one more dimension of betrayal long after the conflict ended. Interested readers should zip through this book quickly as a foundation of knowledge for whatever happens should Brexit proceed and the hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland is restored. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Say Nothing from amazon.com.

Afternoon of a Faun

Complicity. Have you ever reflected on an episode from your past and felt differently about it in light of current mores? James Lasdun’s short novel titled, Afternoon of a Faun, offers readers a perspective about sexual relationships and the stories we repeat to ourselves over time. A journalist has been accused by an old friend that he sexually assaulted her years ago. Lasdun uses an unnamed narrator to relate the action in the present and in the 1970s when the alleged abuse occurred. We participate as readers in determining who the victims are and of what. Lasdun understands the nature of complicity and uses that insight to increase the power of this novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Afternoon of a Faun from amazon.com.

The Gulf

School. If you think there’s a specialty school for everything, you will not even blink when you head to Florida’s Gulf coast to the school at the center of Belle Boggs’ debut novel titled, The Gulf. Protagonist Marianne is a teacher and poet on the verge of losing her Brooklyn apartment to condo conversion. After her ex-fiancé and his brother offer her the chance to live in Florida as the director of a small school for Christian writers, she agrees. Since we’re in Florida, the characters are larger than life and there is a hurricane. Some funding for the school comes from a group that develops a variety of private for-profit schools aimed at the Christian market. There’s lots of wit on these pages, interesting characters, genuine empathy and understanding of our human foibles. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Gulf from amazon.com.


Pleasure. I read for pleasure, and Michael Chabon’s short collection titled, Bookends, reminds me how much joy there can be in reading and in sharing what we like with others. For those of us with wide interests, Chabon is a model for following any paths where our interests lie. I think Chabon is one of our finest contemporary writers, and he prose sings in this collection. For the first time, I learned about the writers who have influenced Chabon, and I realized that none of them surprised me. Any reader who appreciates finely written prose can enjoy this collection of brief pieces that reveal the prodigious skill of this talented writer. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Bookends from amazon.com.

The Oracle

Girls. The eleventh novel in Clive Cussler’s Sam and Remi Fargo series is titled, The Oracle. Set in different parts of Africa, each chapter begins with an African proverb. The Fargo’s philanthropy supports a girls’ school, situated near where members of a group like Boko Haram are terrorizing the community. True to the series, there’s a treasure to be found, and the plot moves quickly as good triumphs over evil. Most readers will fall in love with one of the girls whose courage and skill overcomes all obstacles. Fans of formulaic fiction and this series are those most likely to enjoy this novel. I can’t recall Sam and Remi taking a break for delicious food and fine wine in this installment, so perhaps they’ll find multiple Michelin starred restaurants on their next outing. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Oracle from amazon.com.

The Vanishing Man

Dorset. The twelfth novel in the Charles Lenox mystery series by Charles Finch is a prequel titled, The Vanishing Man. Set in London in 1853, young Charles Lenox, fresh off a solved case, is drawn into a new investigation at the request of the Duke of Dorset. A stolen painting brings Lenox into the Duke’s orbit, but the investigation leads to a rocky relationship with high society. Fans of the series will enjoy seeing familiar characters in their youth, and mystery lovers will find great characters and an engaging plot. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Vanishing Man from amazon.com.

The Black Ascot

Hiding. Inspector Ian Rutledge is back and he’s breaking more Scotland Yard rules in the novel by Charles Todd titled, The Black Ascot. A murder suspect, Alan Barrington, in a case that happened at the 1910 Ascot race has been missing for over ten years, and Rutledge gets permission to try to track him down. Fans of this popular crime series know that despite his nightmares from his World War I experience, Rutledge will doggedly investigate this case, and discover where Barrington has been hiding. Readers who enjoy character-driven crime fiction with engaging plots are those most likely to enjoy this novel and this series. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Black Ascot from amazon.com.

The Last Romantics

Siblings. Sometimes siblings have the same childhood, especially when they are close in age. Other times, siblings recall family life in radically different ways. In her novel titled, The Last Romantics, Tara Conklin introduces readers to the Skinner family. The three girls and one boy shared major trauma in childhood: the death of their father, and the depression of their mother for multiple years, a period they named “the pause.” The perspective of the novel comes from the future, giving comfort that the siblings survived. Sorrow and love formed them and changed them. Conklin tells their stories with great skill and insight into human nature. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Last Romantics from amazon.com.

Good Riddance

Yearbook. The high school class of 1968 dedicated its yearbook to teacher June Winter Maritch. The action in Elinor Lipman’s novel titled, Good Riddance, begins after June’s daughter, Daphne Maritch, throws away her late mother’s yearbook. A dumpster-diving neighbor, Geneva, retrieves the yearbook and approaches Daphne with her plan to make a documentary based on the yearbook. Hijinks follow, as Lipman weaves a romantic story and peeks inside family dynamics. Readers looking for light entertainment are those most likely to enjoy this novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Good Riddance from amazon.com.

Everything Under

River. Readers who enjoy finely written literary fiction should consider Daisy Johnson’s debut novel titled, Everything Under. Give yourself over to the flow of Johnson’s prose as she meanders like a river while updating the story of Oedipus to a modern setting. While reading the novel, I was often confused and uncertain about where the story was and where it might be going. Johnson’s prose kept me patient and spending time with her on this journey of words was rewarding, if only to remind me to be patient. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Everything Under from amazon.com.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches, and Meditations

Prowess. If the occasion of Toni Morrison’s death leads you to read or reread her fiction, by all means do it. A few days before her death, I read a collection titled, The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches, and Meditations, and she has been on my mind in recent weeks. I love her novels, and this collection reveals that same clear voice in personal ways and with vision and deep thought. Whenever and however Morrison spoke, attention must be paid by those willing to learn a thing or two. On some pages, we hear Morrison the teacher, on others, the editor, and on others the award-winning author. Her prowess appears throughout, and I finished reading this collection inspired and perhaps a tiny bit wiser. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase The Source of Self-Regard from amazon.com.

The Rosie Result

Project. The third installment in the Don Tillman series by Graeme Simsion is titled, The Rosie Result. Time has flown since the last installment. Don and Rosie’s son, Hudson, is on the brink of high school, and Don shifts his focus from work to parenting and takes on the project lead role for what is the Hudson project. The project involves achieving the right result by following the right process. Hudson has his own ideas and Don and Rosie know that he has to find his own way in the world, with or without an autism assessment. As with the earlier novels, the characters are endearing, the plot interesting, and the humor frequent. Plus, there’s a cocktail bar. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Rosie Result from amazon.com.


Refuge. Courtney Maum’s novel titled, Costalegre, assembles many elements inside a compact work. War is looming in Europe in 1937 and wealthy art patron Leonora Calaway is arranging for artists and her art to be transported to Mexico where she has a resort named, Costalegre. Almost as an afterthought, she pulls her fifteen-year-old daughter, Lara, out of school to join the eclectic group in their refuge in Mexico. It’s Lara’s point of view that controls the narrative, and she so longs for attention from her mother that readers can feel her anguish. Maum breaks tension with humor and presents the lives of artists with vivid imagery. Maum presents privilege and longing in a lush setting and she writes about losing and finding ourselves as we live in this world of conflict, anxiety and uncertainty. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Costalegre from amazon.com.

The White Book

Meditation. Take a breath. Relax. Feel your heart rate drop. Listen to your regular breathing. Once you’ve reached a calm rhythm, open a copy of Han Kang’s novel titled, The White Book, and calmly mediate with her as she riffs on the color white and explores loss and grief. Let your own memories become triggered by this prose and remember in a gentle way. As all the white images drift by, reflect on the fragility of life. Let the words of this finely written book reach you deeply. If any of that sounds like time well spent, by all means read this book. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The White Book from amazon.com.

Atmosphæra Incognita

Tower. Fans of Neal Stephenson who have become accustomed to feasting for many days over his epic novels will be as surprised as I was with the snack size novella titled, Atmosphæra Incognita. Packed into this little book is a plot about the building of a giant tower and the technical obstacles overcome to reach significant heights. I recall Frank Lloyd Wright designed a mile-high skyscraper that was never built. Stephenson’s imagination exceeds such a modest effort. Stephenson’s architecture of this story includes great precision and longtime readers will see a master at work on these pages. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Atmosphæra Incognita from amazon.com.

The Nickel Boys

Elwood. It seemed that I had finished reading Colson Whitehead’s novel titled, The Nickel Boys, just minutes after I started. I was hooked by the story of Elwood Curtis and his diversion from the road to college to serving time at the Nickel Academy, a reform school. Whitehead exposes evil in his exposition of individuals and the institution and the community. Within a handful of pages, readers will become incensed by scandalous behavior and injustice at an institution whose mission entails reform. Whitehead’s fine prose soars on the pages of this novel, and the powerful story is enhanced by a well-crafted plot and complex and interesting characters. If the finest fiction reveals the depths of human behavior and draws readers into feeling deeply, this novel does that expertly. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase The Nickel Boys from amazon.com.

This Storm

Staccato. Readers are bombarded by the rhythm of staccato sentences over the course of almost six hundred pages of James Ellroy’s novel titled, This Storm. Set in Los Angeles in 1942, the novel combines complex and interesting fictional characters with some historical characters and events. The pace never lets up and the complexity increases as the cast of characters grows. There’s a noir mood from cover to cover and dialogue and language that fits the setting may grate contemporary readers. Patient readers are rewarded with avarice, vice, corruption and crimes aplenty. The world was crazy in 1942, and Ellroy draws readers into one slice of the world at that time and throws sentence after sentence at us until we are immersed or bludgeoned. I enjoyed the challenge of reading this novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase This Storm from amazon.com.

Whisper Network

Harassment. The novel by corporate attorney Chandler Baker titled, Whisper Network, deserves a wide readership. Set inside the legal department of a corporation, the action in the novel revolves around past and present sexual harassment by the company’s General Counsel. Corporate attorneys and human resources managers will take a busman’s holiday with this novel, pleased that their workplace is a much better place for women than the company in this novel. Feminists are likely to feel that Baker speaks their truth with eloquence and explains the ways in which #MeToo gives voice to matters once kept secret. Book clubs are likely to embrace this novel and with wine during conversations, personal stories are likely to be revealed. Any man will benefit from reading this novel especially if it leads to improved listening to women and an enhanced perspective about the lives of women in contemporary society. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase Whisper Network from amazon.com.

Killing with Confetti

Wedding. The eighteenth installment in Peter Lovesey’s mystery series featuring Bath head of CID Peter Diamond is a novel titled, Killing with Confetti. Fans who love character-driven crime fiction that’s well-plotted are those readers most likely to enjoy this novel and this series. After his son has become engaged to the daughter of a prominent criminal, George Brace, the Deputy Chief Constable, selects Peter Diamond to be in charge of security for the wedding. Lovesey drops lots of great clues and structures a terrific and engaging story. As always, Diamond chafes under his boss Georgina’s management, and skirts expected norms and rules in doing his effective work. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Killing with Confetti from amazon.com.

These Truths: A History of the United States

Gallop. Don’t blink while reading Jill Lepore’s book titled, These Truths: A History of the United States. If you blink, you might miss a major episode in American History because Lepore writes at a galloping pace. Believe it or not, this almost thousand-page book manages to be concise while still being comprehensive. I can’t think of something important that she skipped. No matter how much you think you know about American History, it can be helpful for a fresh examination through the scholarship of a contemporary historian. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase These Truths from amazon.com.

Monday, August 5, 2019

If She Wakes

Driving. The latest thriller by Michael Koryta is a novel titled, If She Wakes. The title makes reference to the vegetative state of Tara Beckley, who was in a car crash. Protagonist Anny Kaplan is an insurance adjuster looking into the crash, and she knows a lot about driving, thanks to her former career as a stunt car driver. Things are not as they appear, and Koryta drives Amy and readers on a trip that has lots of curves and accelerations. Readers who like well-written thrillers are those most likely to enjoy this novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase If She Wakes from amazon.com.

Siege: Trump Under Fire

Bannon. After all the dirt dished in Michael Wolff’s 2018 book titled, Fire and Fury, I was surprised that a second volume titled, Siege: Trump Under Fire, would follow so quickly. In the same way that political insiders talk to Bob Woodward knowing he will write about what they say whether flattering or not, it seems that Wolff has no shortage of people willing to dish dirt on the record. One obvious source, Steve Bannon, shows up throughout this book. Political junkies of any partisan stripe are those readers most likely to buy, if not actually read, this book. Rating: Three-star (It’s ok) Click here to purchase Siege from amazon.com.

Comedy Sex God

Journey. The title of Pete Holmes book, Comedy Sex God, tells the truth about the three topics covered inside. When I first saw the cover, I thought the first two words of the title were adjectives. Not so. Pete tells us about his life in comedy, his experience with sex in ways that will amuse many readers, and his journey toward finding God in his life. All of our lives are meandering journeys in one way or another. Pete was raised as an evangelical Christian and that influenced greatly his coming of age sexually. Later in his life after he abandoned his religious roots, he rediscovered his spiritual life thanks to Ram Dass. As most readers would expect from a standup comedian, a lot of the stories in this book are hilarious. There’s sincerity in his spiritual quest that will resonate for fellow pilgrims on that journey. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Comedy Sex God from amazon.com.

There's a Word for That

Inheritance. After I finished reading Sloane Tanen’s novel titled, There’s a Word for That, I thought of something a psychiatrist said after pointing toward his copy of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders: “we’re all in there somewhere.” Tanen uses the members of multiple generations of the Kessler family to describe aspects of inheritance and help readers laugh at our lifelong foibles. Protagonist Marty Kessler is a 75-year-old movie producer heading to rehab because he’s hooked on opioids. A fellow resident at the rehab in Malibu is Bunny Small, a 70-year-old writer to whom Marty had been married briefly decades earlier. Tanen defines some German words at the beginning of chapters to support the meaning of the book’s title. I felt mildly entertained and found Tanen’s prose enjoyable both in dialogue and exposition. Maybe all the dysfunction in the relationships was just tiring. Rating: Three-star (It’s ok) Click here to purchase There’s a Word for That from amazon.com.

Oliver Wendell Holmes: A Life in War, Law, and Ideas

Zeal. I love reading a book that closes a gap in my learning that I didn’t know was there. Stephen Budiansky’s biography titled, Oliver Wendell Holmes: A Life in War, Law, and Ideas, taught me loads of things I never knew about the renowned jurist. Before reading this book, I knew about some of Holmes’ Supreme Court opinions. Now, I know about his full life: his zeal for living, how formative his Civil War service was, his many engaging relationships, his lively conversational style and his hunger for knowledge. I feel a bond with Holmes the fellow reader, and when I read about him enjoying P.G. Wodehouse, I felt like I made a new friend. Budiansky writes for general readers in a style that will keep all readers interested throughout this finely written biography. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase Oliver Wendell Holmes from amazon.com.

Lady in the Lake

Reporter. The location for Laura Lippman’s latest standalone novel titled, Lady in the Lake, is Baltimore, as usual, and the time period is mostly the 1960s. Protagonist Maddie Schwartz has just left a twenty year marriage and frees herself to do something meaningful with her life. She wheedles her way into a job at a Baltimore newspaper, and proves her worth as an investigative reporter helping solve a mystery. The novel is packed with a cast of fascinating characters, and the great story that Lippman writes even includes a surprise twist. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Lady in the Lake from amazon.com.

Henry, Himself

Seasons. We spend most of our time in the ordinary routines of life. In his novel titled, Henry, Himself, Stewart O’Nan reprises characters from earlier novels. We get to observe the everyday life of protagonist Henry Maxwell and his wife, Emily, as they go through the change of seasons and do what most of us do: fall into our typical patterns, and stumble into new people, places and things that tend to surprise us and shake us out of our routine. O’Nan offers readers a portrait of a guy in Pittsburgh who could be any one of us. Readers looking for lots of action and drama won’t fine it here. What patient readers will find is a good man living a good life and well-written prose. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Henry Himself from amazon.com.

A Wonderful Stroke of Luck

Unpredictable. At the core of Ann Beattie’s novel titled, A Wonderful Stroke of Luck, there is this reality about life: it’s unpredictable. Protagonist Ben was a star at his private school, but has drifted since, not quite living up to his perceived potential. That potential was influenced by a manipulative teacher, Pierre LaVerdere. I know I had teachers like LaVerdere. In college, we called one professor “Flies,” because where there’s shit, there’s flies. It is difficult in youth to discern truth. Lots of characters come and go, each one revealing inner thoughts while being walloped by reality. The nature of life is that things never turn out the way we expect, and Beattie delivers that truth with keen insight in this novel. The title comes from the epigraph and when you read it, you might be quite surprised. It was a great note on which to begin this novel. The reversals in the lives of characters are so frequent that many readers will feel as out of control as Ben himself. And as to LaVerdere, he turns out to be more despicable than I imagined, and when he reenters Ben’s life years after their teacher-student relationship ended, he attempts to reprise his manipulation. Beattie reveals the lies we tell each other and writes with great precision about life as it is: messy, unpredictable and often deceitful. If after the first reading of this novel, you are frustrated or confused, read it again, and its likely you’ll see the skill with which Beattie writes this novel. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase A Wonderful Stroke of Luck from amazon.com.

The Ditch

Marriages. All is not well in the life of the mayor of Amsterdam as presented in the novel by Herman Koch titled, The Ditch. While the mayor gives us his name as Robert Walter, that is not his name, nor is his wife named Silvia. Koch explores the interactions of couples in marriage and exposes the consequences of what is not expressed with clarity. Robert has suspicions. Sylvia has been and will always be a foreigner. Robert’s own parents are another study in being both together and apart. A formative experience of Robert’s is revealed late in the novel, as well as the meaning of the title of the novel. Koch riffs on trust and distrust in many aspects and patient readers are rewarded by the end of the novel with insights about what has been going on in this entertaining novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Ditch from amazon.com.


Podcast. I share an interest in podcasts with Anna McDonald, the protagonist of Denise Mina’s novel titled, Conviction. After hearing a podcast episode about a true crime, Anna and the plot take off. It turns out that Anna was very familiar with the crime described on the podcast. For almost four hundred pages, Mina writes with clever wit and readers learn about a secret from Anna’s past and the efforts she takes to come to terms with solving a mystery and finding out the truth about something that changed her life. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Conviction from amazon.com.