Friday, October 25, 2019

Olive, Again

Unfiltered. Fans of the memorable character Olive Kitteridge from a collection of stories with that title by Elizabeth Strout will be delighted that Olive has returned in another connected story collection titled, Olive, Again. Olive continues to speak her mind, bluntly, unfiltered, and often without awareness about the impact of her words on others. In other words, Olive is older, but not mellower. Beneath her crotchety veneer, there is deep love and kindness that comes out with each story in this collection. Best of all are the things Olive comes to realize over time, and what she never quite learns about herself. Strout leads readers to think about aging and the things we can learn and reflect about as we get older. The setting in Maine brings current rural life there in vibrant images in these stories. Strout writes with great skill, and I loved the return of Olive even more than I enjoyed meeting her over a decade ago. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase Olive Again from


Hybrid. Should your book club select Jeanette Winterson’s novel titled, Frankissstein, be prepared to open more wine as questions explored in the novel will lead to more questions. She weaves two stories: the familiar Mary Shelley story and a contemporary story featuring a transgender doctor who works in cryogenics. Questions arise about the purpose of the body, the meaning of life, defining our identity and following our desires. Will we be a hybrid of body and machine? After the second glass of wine at book club, let the likely conversation about sexbots meander toward laughter. Then ask another deep question. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Frankissstein from

What Do We Need Men For?: A Modest Proposal

Spunky. Set aside for a moment that you already know one thing E. Jean Carroll says about President Trump in her memoir titled, What Do We Need Men For? A Modest Proposal. With that off your mind, let me set up the rest of this book. Carroll went on a road trip asking women the question in the title. The book is packed with anecdotes, asides, interesting people, and stories from the full and exciting life of the author over the course of many years. This spunky writer is full of life, humor and resilience. There’s a dark history related underneath the lightness of the narrative, and Carroll’s ability to convey her story with grace makes this book capture the highs and lows of an interesting life during fascinating times. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase What Do We Need Men For from

The Ruin

Links. The debut novel by Dervla McTiernan is titled, The Ruin. Set in Galway, the novel links two cases of detective Cormac Reilly: the recent death of Jack Blake, and two decades earlier when as a rookie policeman he met Jack with sister Maude at the death of their mother. Sure in Ireland the past is always present and the ghosts never go away. Fans of crime fiction will find the cases compelling, the characters interesting, and the writing satisfying. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Ruin from

A Death in the Rainforest: How a Language and a Way of Life Came to an End in Papua New Guinea

Isolated. Readers interested in learning about the work of an anthropologist should consider a book by Professor Don Kulick of Uppsala University titled, A Death in the Rainforest: How a Language and a Way of Life Came to an End in Papua New Guinea. Over the course of three decades, Kulick spent time in Papua New Guinea documenting an isolated language, Tayap. Kulick tells us the story of these people and how they live in a changing world, as he takes us behind the scenes to show what an anthropologist does. Reading this book reminded me why my undergraduate major in anthropology never led to graduate school or to fieldwork. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase A Death in the Rainforest from

American Messiahs: False Prophets of a Damned Nation

Audience. Throughout American History religious leaders have arisen to present an alternative message to receptive followers. In his book titled, American Messiahs: False Prophets of a Damned Nation, Adam Morris surveys a wide range of these leaders, some well-known and others obscure. General readers may find the narrative a bit bland while those knowledgeable in history and religion may find that the narrative leaves many gaps. I enjoyed hearing about people I never knew, like Cyrus Teed in the nineteenth century, and some I enjoyed learning more about, like Father Devine in the twentieth century. Some self-proclaimed messiahs were benign and others dangerous. Any reader with interest in both history and religion will find these stories interesting. Rating: Three-star (It’s ok) Click here to purchase American Messiahs from

A Better Man

Fear. The Chief Inspector Gamache series by Louise Penny is one of those rare cases in which new installments continue to get better. One of the best novels yet, the fifteenth in the series, is titled, A Better Man. Armand Gamache’s suspension from the Sûreté du Québec has ended, and to the surprise of politicians who wanted him retired, Gamache has returned in a demoted role, head of homicide, a role he shares with his son-in-law Jean-Guy Beauvoir, who will soon be leaving Canada to work in the private sector in France. Penny uses this installment to explore fear in many forms, which she does with great skill. The mystery at the heart of this story keeps many readers guessing among lots of possibilities until the very end of the book, to great satisfaction. Along the way, a full cast of familiar characters supports the action. Gamache draws on a lifetime of experience to use his psychological insights to solve a complicated case and to assume his demoted job with skill and sensitivity. Loyal readers will savor this installment, and any crime fiction reader can start this series anyplace and find good writing and terrific characters. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase A Better Man from

Marilou Is Everywhere

Outsider. Sarah Elaine Smith’s debut novel it titled, Marilou Is Everywhere. Protagonist Cindy Stoat is coming of age in rural Pennsylvania as an outsider. She and her two brothers have been living on their own since their mother abandoned them. After Cindy’s brother Virgil’s girlfriend, Jude, disappears, the siblings begin spending time with Jude’s mom, Bernadette. While at first in her alcoholic haze, Bernadette doesn’t register the presence of Cindy, before long she begins to mistake Cindy for the missing Jude. Missing her own mother, Cindy falls into a situation where she is being loved in a home with affluence. Smith offers this story using finely written prose that will be savored by those readers who can overlook a lot of the quirky aspects of this novel. Rating: Three-star (It’s ok) Click here to purchase Marilou Is Everywhere from

Kopp Sisters on the March

War. The fifth installment in Amy Stewart’s series featuring the Kopp Sisters is a novel titled, Kopp Sisters on the March. Set in 1917 when the United States is preparing to enter World War I, Stewart sends the sisters from New Jersey to Camp Chevy Chase, a National Service School, outside DC. The purpose of the training camp for women is to train them how to help in the war effort. Constance uses her experience as sheriff, while Norma pitches the military on using messenger pigeons in battle, and Fleurette enlivens the camp with entertainment. Readers who enjoy historical fiction are those most likely to enjoy this novel and this series. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Kopp Sisters on the March from

Trump Sky Alpha

Satire. If aspects of contemporary life are not dystopic enough for you, consider reading Mark Doten’s satire titled, Trump Sky Alpha. The novel is set one year after President Trump’s nuclear war, and the title refers to his huge aircraft available only for the very best people who look terrific. The protagonist is a journalist on an assignment to open the door to the remains of the internet and uncover its secrets. More serious readers of this novel will see its exploration of the use of media, the consequences of disinformation and how hard it can be to determine what is true, especially when distracted by all the noise. Rating: Three-star (It’s ok) Click here to purchase Trump Sky Alpha from

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Live a Little

Joy. I defy any reader of Howard Jacobson’s novel titled, Live a Little, to come away from the book without a feeling of joy. Protagonists Shimi and Beryl are nonagenarians who are approaching the end of life while giving a new loving relationship one more try. Beryl has a sharp word for everybody and enjoys every volley she sends to people nearby. Shimi’s popularity among the widows of his cohort doesn’t bring him pleasure. He prefers practicing cartomancy at the Chinese restaurant when he’s not ruminating about his past. Jacobson brings these opposite types together and encourages them to do what the title of the novel says. My heart was touched by this novel and I laughed and smiled a lot while reading it. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Live a Little from

Trillion Dollar Coach: The Leadership Playbook of Silicon Valley's Bill Campbell

Tribute. Three current or former Google executives offer a touching tribute to their late friend, mentor and coach in a book titled, Trillion Dollar Coach: The Leadership Playbook of Silicon Valley's Bill Campbell. Eric Schmidt, Jonathan Rosenberg and Alan Eagle found trust, love, caring and friendship in Bill Campbell who helped them succeed in work and in life. In addition to relating their personal experiences with Bill, the trio interviewed about eighty others who were impacted by him. Managers and executives will find the stories engaging and the lessons compelling. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Trillion Dollar Coach from

The World That We Knew

Morality. Alice Hoffman explores the forces of good and evil in her novel titled, The World That We Knew. Surrounded by the forces of evil, but unable to escape Berlin in 1941, a mother struggles to protect her twelve-year-old daughter. Our world can turn upside down in an instant and evil can seem victorious. Love can survive loss and even in dire situations, the power of love can prevail. Hoffman’s prose is finely written, the character development complex and interesting, and the exploration of morality unblinking at both goodness and evil. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The World That We Knew from

In the Closet of the Vatican: Power, Homosexuality, Hypocrisy

Scandal. While I read Frédéric Martel’s almost six-hundred-page book titled, In the Closet of the Vatican: Power, Homosexuality, Hypocrisy, I found myself wondering why people were willing to talk to him and reveal the many examples of scandal and misbehavior that he reveals about the Catholic clergy. For whatever reason, they did as he conducted loads of interviews for this book over a long period of time and chronicles a story that most readers will find both sad and scandalous. I kept thinking about the reality that humans do stupid stuff and that goodness and evil exist side by side within each of us. After a while, though, I found the hypocrisy overwhelming, so I paced myself over several weeks while I read this book. Many readers will finish the book anxious for dramatic reform in the Catholic church and sad that such reform is highly unlikely during our lifetime. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase In the Closet of the Vatican from

Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know about the People We Don't Know

Structure. In his new book titled, Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know about the People We Don't Know, Malcolm Gladwell uses a structure that has entertained readers of his earlier books. He takes a sociological nugget, in this case our inability to detect truth or deception when we encounter strangers. He selects an example, tells a story, then builds his case with multiple ways of looking at the issue. I listened to the audiobook which contains special features that come across as a mix of podcast and text. As always, Gladwell is observant, thoughtful and knows how to engage readers. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Talking to Strangers from

The Men and the Moment: The Election of 1968 and the Rise of Partisan Politics in America

Roots. Fans of recent American history are those readers most likely to enjoy the brisk examination of the election of 1968 by University of Memphis professor Aram Goudsouzian in a book titled, The Men and the Moment: The Election of 1968 and the Rise of Partisan Politics in America. He structures the book into chapters featuring the major contenders in the presidential election. Goudsouzian reveals the roots of our current political divide in the people and events of 1968. He captures the essence of the personalities of the key players and offers a text accessible to any general reader. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Men and the Moment from

Blowout: Corrupted Democracy, Rogue State Russia, and the Richest, Most Destructive Industry on Earth

Transparency. You already know what Rachel Maddow thinks about the fossil fuel industry by the subtitle of her book titled, Blowout: Corrupted Democracy, Rogue State Russia, and the Richest, Most Destructive Industry on Earth. Inside this book, you’ll find over 400 pages describing corruption and malfeasance in the oil and gas business around the world. Maddow offers pride of place to Rex Tillerson and his calm demeanor while he enters into lucrative and shady partnerships with Vladimir Putin. Maddow calls for action including transparency, the elimination of subsidies, and steps to reduce the corrupt influence of this business on democracy. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Blowout from

Rusty Brown, Part 1

Inexplicable. I worked hard while reading Chris Ware’s graphic novel titled, Rusty Brown, Part 1. Some of the panels are very small, and the text required me to ratchet up to 2.5x readers and a bright light. On and between the covers of this unusual book, readers can become immersed in the highs and lows of life. This is a story of the struggles of life and love. By calling this volume one, Ware is preparing loyal readers to anticipate continuing the story. This book is way beyond my ability to explain, so I suggest that any interested reader pick up the volume and sample what Ware has to offer. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Rusty Brown Part 1 from

The Testaments

Resolution. Fans of Margaret Atwood’s novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, have waited decades for the author to continue telling the story. To prepare myself for a return to Gilead, I re-read The Handmaid’s Tale, and am glad I did. I was prepared to open the new novel, The Testaments, with fresh memories. I was delighted that one of the perspectives in the new novel comes from Aunt Lydia. Her insights help readers see Gilead from the inside. As always, Atwood leads readers to think for ourselves. Lydia is more complex than I expected, and she offers an understanding of the power of women in Gilead. We also receive the perspective of Agnes Jemima, born in Gilead as the daughter of a Commander and a Wife. Atwood uses Agnes to help readers understand the expectations placed upon young women in Gilead. The third narrator begins her story outside Gilead, in Toronto, where she gradually understands the truth about her past. Atwood lets readers make up our own minds as we hear these narratives and while there is resolution by the end of the novel, many questions remain. Readers are free to reflect on many levels of meaning structured in this novel and to ponder what it takes to topple a corrupt and immoral regime. Atwood continues to be a keen observer of life and plays the role of messenger to readers about living in our contemporary world and heeding the signs of our times. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase The Testaments from

This Tender Land

Storyteller. The action in William Kent Krueger’s novel titled, This Tender Land, takes place in the summer of 1932. The United States is in the throes of the Great Depression. Farmers have lost their livelihoods, and desperate people are living in Hoovervilles where conditions are horrible. Using gorgeous prose, Krueger deploys thirteen-year-old narrator Odysseus O’Banion to draw readers into one pivotal summer when Odie and three other orphans escape from the abusive Lincoln School in Minnesota and take a river journey toward a new life. Readers who love gripping storytelling are those most likely to enjoy this finely written novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase This Tender Land from

Thursday, October 10, 2019


Rescue. Prepare yourself to settle into another one of Emma Donoghue’s finely written novels, a book titled, Akin. Protagonist Noah is an old man, retired and widowed, and ready for a trip to his birthplace in France to explore questions from the past about his family. Just before his departure, Noah meets his eleven-year-old grandnephew, Michael, whose mother is in prison and who needs a new guardian. A social worker has tracked down Noah and when the choice comes down to Noah or a stranger as foster parent, Noah finds himself agreeing to a trial run, as long as Michael can accompany him to France. What follows is a touching story about the young and the old, the links of family relationships, and a rescue from the past and the present. As always, Donoghue’s writing is superb, and most readers will love the story, the insights and the finely written prose. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase Akin from

Fleishman Is in Trouble

Me. New York Times journalist Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s debut novel is titled, Fleishman Is in Trouble. The fifteen-year-old marriage of protagonist Toby Fleishman and his wife, Rachel, has ended, and Toby seems ready to start a new chapter in his life. I loved the well-developed characters in this novel, the finely written prose, and the exploration of the challenges to all marriages when our selfishness takes command and we focus on “me” and not “us.” Brodesser-Akner deftly touches on what men want and what women want in contemporary upper middle-class urban society. Readers are drawn into the lives of Toby and Rachel and we are set up for an ending that will please most readers. Readers who like clever and complex novels with fine writing are those most likely to enjoy this book. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase Fleishman Is in Trouble from

On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous

Poetic. If your mother were illiterate, and you knew that a letter to her would never be read or understood, what would you write? We’re shown what we could write in the debut novel by Ocean Vuong titled, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. Using finely written prose, Vuong’s skill as a poet shines in this exposition about life as it is, unvarnished, conveying one’s trust. What does it take to be heard? There’s tenderness on these pages, and also the violence of life in a society where class, race and masculinity become toxic for the narrator of the novel, a man in his late twenties named Little Dog. The revelations in the novel can be dramatic and are always reflective, insightful and finely written. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous from


Hope. Both my parents emigrated to Brooklyn, so when I read Nicole Dennis-Benn’s novel titled, Patsy, featuring an immigrant living in Brooklyn, I was receptive to the story. Patsy left her life in Jamaica for a better life in Brooklyn but finds her situation more difficult than she imagined. She left her five-year-old daughter, Tru, behind in Jamaica and Dennis-Benn moves back and forth over the course of a decade as she reveals the changing lives of both Patsy and Tru. Hope may be one of the most powerful drivers of human behavior, and the bonds between mothers and daughters take many forms. Life often requires resilience, and love can be a balm for what we do to harm others and to heal our own wounds. I learned only after my father’s death that he never wanted to come to the United States. A brother had booked passage and arrangements had been made for him with a relative in New York. That brother broke his leg, and was unable to sail, so my father was told he had to quit his job and go to the US whether he wanted to or not. It took him forty years to see those brothers face-to-face again. Dennis-Benn understands. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Patsy from

The Assault on American Excellence

Academy. It’s time to stop the nonsense at universities. That’s the message of Anthony Kronman, former dean of Yale Law School, in his book titled, The Assault on American Excellence. He calls for universities to return to their principles and stop yielding to those pressing for actions that avoid discomforting students and create greater egalitarianism. Perhaps it was the way in which the administration at Yale flip flopped on the issue of renaming Calhoun Hall that set off Kronman. Readers interested in the state of the academy today are those most likely to enjoy reading this book, whether one agrees or disagrees with Kronman. I found lots of clear thinking on these pages, to my delight. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Assault on American Excellence from

We Are the Weather: Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast

Act. Do something. Climate change isn’t someone else’s problem. We make our earthly home together and each of us can take action that will help respond to the climate crisis. That’s much of what Jonathan Safran Foer proposes in his book titled, We Are the Weather: Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast. He writes this as a personal reflection and a call to action. He describes his own hypocrisy when he acts in ways that he knows are different from what he wants to do. An individual action as simple as not eating meat for a meal or two each day can combine with a similar action by others and reduce the number of animals raised for human consumption and the environmental consequences caused by those animals. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase We Are the Weather from

The Whisperer

Listening. The thirteenth installment in the Inspector Sejer mystery series by Karin Fossum is a novel titled, The Whisperer. Fans of the series will be familiar with the personality and style of Inspector Sejer and enjoy the compassion and empathy he shows to a woman held for a serious crime. Sejer allows protagonist Ragna Reigel tell her story and he listens closely and carefully, showing her respect. Fossum allows readers to enter into Ragna’s life in small bits surrounding Sejer’s interrogations. Ragna speaks very softly, hence the title, so we can imagine the patience and care Sejer shows her as he gives her time and space to speak up. Readers who enjoy finely written mysteries are those most likely to enjoy this novel and this series. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Whisperer from

Unthinkable: An Extraordinary Journey Through the World's Strangest Brains

Envy. Have you ever wished that you had a better memory? Be careful what you wish for. One of the nine interesting brains that Helen Thomson explores in her book titled, Unthinkable: An Extraordinary Journey Through the World’s Strangest Brains, involves a man who remembers every single detail of his life. Other examples include hearing music that isn’t “there,” and one doctor who feels his patients’ pain. Thomson writes with real verve and proposes ways that our more typical brains can work better for us. The biology is fascinating, the cases compelling, and the overall text cogent and thoughtful. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Unthinkable from

My Sister, The Serial Killer

Witty. Readers who enjoy dark humor are those most likely to enjoy the witty debut novel titled, My Sister, The Serial Killer, by Oyinkan Braithwaite. Her prose grabbed me with an opening scene that involved bleach, and before long I was a co-conspirator with these fascinating siblings as they face desire and pain and the twists and turns of life. The pace of this novel is brisk, and the characters are engaging and interesting. I was thoroughly entertained as Braithwaite tickled the funny bone of my dark side. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase My Sister the Serial Killer from

The Water Dancer

Conductor. Treat yourself by reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ debut novel titled, The Water Dancer. I completed reading it within twenty-four hours of its release because the well-told story grabbed me, and Coates’ characters, prose and plot are finely written. Protagonist Hiram Walker is a young slave whose life is transformed when he encounters the force of a power he has inherited. Hiram escapes from slavery and becomes a conductor on the underground railroad. I found this to be a powerful and imaginative story with finely written prose that exposes the center of our humanity, our aspirations for a better life for ourselves and those we love. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase The Water Dancer from