Friday, February 21, 2020

One Day: The Extraordinary Story of an Ordinary 24 Hours in America

Herculean. Treat yourself to a celebration of life by reading Gene Weingarten’s finely written book titled, One Day: The Extraordinary Story of an Ordinary 24 Hours in America. Pulitzer-prize winning Weingarten had strangers pick a random date, and then he went out looking for human interest stories from that date. His process involved conducting hundreds of interviews over the course of six years. The result is a glimpse into all kinds of lives and their stories. Weingarten approaches the complexity of human behavior and presents real people and their interesting and compelling stories. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase One Day from

Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men

Default. Many readers will be outraged after reading Caroline Criado Perez’ book titled, Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men. Women die because in multiple ways men are used as the default for data analysis and women are ignored. Drugs are tested on men, even drugs intended for women alone. Crash tests use dummies based on men not women. Perez offers loads of evidence and multiple examples of many of the ways in which women are invisible and the consequence is dire. Women already know much of what’s in this book because of a lifetime of working around a world designed with men as the default. Men should read this book and join the outrage. Then, do something to make this nonsense stop. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase Invisible Women from

The Captain and the Glory

Satire. Partisans love satire that pokes at opponents, and we bristle when satire hits any targets we support. In his satire titled, The Captain and the Glory, Dave Eggers focuses on the incumbent United States President, so how you assess Trump will likely lead you toward or away from this book. It’s clear that Eggers views the situation in the United States as dangerous and destructive to norms, values and the institutions that form the fabric of democratic life. This is a look at how the ship of state is being steered, and Eggers concludes that the state of the union is perilous. Sometimes satire can make us smile or laugh. This satire makes us think. Approach or reject as you are inclined. I’m deep in thought. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Captain and the Glory from

The Borgias: Power and Depravity in Renaissance Italy

Infamy. Consider escaping from contemporary stories of power and depravity and spend some time with Paul Strathern’s book titled, The Borgias: Power and Depravity in Renaissance Italy. Whether you know a lot or a little about the Borgias before opening this book, you are likely to re-read some passages when what Strathern says in a straightforward way sinks in. Treachery, entanglements of all sorts, violence and schemes abound on these pages. We hear about boundless ambition, the purchase of the papacy, and the exercise of power. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Borgias from

Frankly in Love

Senior. David Yoon’s debut novel titled, Frankly in Love, pulls readers back to high school where senior Frank Li is dating Brit Means. Frank’s Korean name is Sung-Min Li, but no one uses it, and growing up in Southern California, he doesn’t speak much Korean. Yoon describes the tension between the expectations of parents to maintain heritage and an individual’s exploration of one’s identity. Yoon’s characters are relatable to all readers, the prose often witty, and the situations typical to all of us during our formative years. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Frankly in Love from

The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11

Voices. I was overwhelmed as I read Garrett M. Graff’s book titled, The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11. He presents many voices telling their story of that day as they lived it. This is a book about our human story, the individual story, the ordinary people who dealt with an extraordinary event in their own personal way. Be prepared to share emotions on the pages of this book. The range of voices is vast, and the feelings are intense. Every day unfolds in its own way, and this historic day unfolded for many people in both ordinary and extraordinary ways. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Only Plane in the Sky from

House on Fire

Overdose. The fourth novel by Joseph Finder featuring protagonist Nick Heller is titled, House on Fire. After an Army friend dies of an opioid overdose, Nick is approached by a renegade heir to a pharmaceutical family fortune who wants him to help her obtain evidence that her family was aware of the addictive nature of their main moneymaking drug. Fans of thrilling crime fiction will enjoy the plot twists and action. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase House on Fire from

Joy: And 52 Other Very Short Stories

Insight. Erin McGraw knows people in all our rich humanity, and she knows how to put together a phrase. In her collection titled, Joy and 52 Other Very Short Stories, McGraw treats us to her insight about people and draws out laughter regularly. Treat this collection as you would a prized box of Belgian chocolates or a rare single malt Scotch. Dole out the stories in small doses, so the pleasure lasts longer. She does more in a page or two than some writers can accomplishes in multiple volumes. In the pause between stories, I found my imagination running away using McGraw’s words as a starting block, and the open track ahead for me to use the insight I gained to wonder about us and our world. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Joy from

The Secrets We Kept

Pasternak. Take the vodka bottle out of the freezer, and pour yourself a healthy drink as you settle down to read Lara Prescott’s debut novel titled, The Secrets We Kept. She gives us Boris Pasternak living under Soviet oppression, and unsure that he will ever see the publication of Dr. Zhivago. We see his complicated life with both wife and mistress. Prescott also describes the situation of women in the CIA during the cold war, when their roles as secretaries exposed them to secrets of all sorts, and some of them were able to pursue spy craft. We see the effort to use Dr. Zhivago as a way to turn Soviet citizens against communism. Thanks to Prescott’s fine prose and effective character development, we are pulled into places and times that merge the historical and fictional with skill. As I raised my glass of vodka upon finishing the novel, I toasted Pasternak: “Vechnaya pamyat” (let him be remembered forever). Na zdorovye. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Secrets We Kept from


Eunice. In his novel titled, Agency, William Gibson picks up an exploration of the future that he started about five years ago in his novel titled, The Peripheral. Artificial intelligence takes the form of an entity named Eunice whose autonomy plays into the fears of those who see conflict coming in the relationship between humans and artificial intelligence. Gibson adds a layer to the story from a more distant future in which hobbyists interact with the past to nudge toward certain outcomes. Gibson writes with great skill, imagination and insight. I find myself thinking about Eunice long after I finished this novel. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase Agency from

Friday, February 14, 2020

Follow Me to Ground

Cures. Will the Earth heal us? In her debut novel titled, Follow Me to Ground, Sue Rainsford creates a setting where short or long periods buried in the ground cure people. Protagonist Ada and her father provide healing to the people who come to them, who they call “Cures.” Ada lives with her father at the outer edge of a village, and they are neither inside nor outside the community. The sick are pleased to be healed. Ada is caught between working with her father and finding love with a man. What does it mean to be a woman? Is burying in the ground a prelude to resurrection? Fans of literary fiction are those readers most likely to enjoy this unusual novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Follow Me to Ground from

Year of the Monkey

Artist. Treat yourself by spending time reading Patti Smith’s memoir titled, Year of the Monkey. This multi-dimensional talented artist offers readers her memories, dreams, impressions, and experiences of 2016. We travel with her during this year and thanks to her poetic language, we feel what she felt. Thanks to her photographs, we see a few of the things that her artistic eye captured. Most of all, we get to admire a talented artist use many of her skills to try to reveal herself to us and to help us reveal ourselves to the world. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Year of the Monkey from

This Is Happiness

Change. Change is in the air in the rural Ireland town of Faha, and not just because the electricity is coming. Niall Williams pulls readers into Faha and its people in his finely written novel titled, This Is Happiness. Williams writes beautiful sentences that capture the setting and the people in ways that may lead a reader to underline or reread. Since the next sentence is usually as good as or better than the last, this can become rhythmic and we begin to feel as if we are in Faha among these fascinating people. Fans of literary fiction are those readers who will enjoy every hour spent in Ireland on the pages of this finely written novel. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase This Is Happiness from

It Shouldn't Be This Hard to Serve Your Country: Our Broken Government and the Plight of Veterans

Politicals. Dr. David Shulkin has first-hand experience of the exercise of political power, and that’s what he writes about in his book titled, It Shouldn’t Be This Hard to Serve Your Country: Our Broken Government and the Plight of Veterans. After success as a physician and in health administration roles, Shulkin joined the Obama Administration in 2015 as Under Secretary for Health in the Department of Veterans Affairs. His focus was on veterans and he is proud of his accomplishments. President Trump asked Shulkin to stay on in government to become Secretary of Veterans Affairs. Before long, Shulkin experienced the vise of political power squeeze him. A Florida pal of the president’s became a regular point of contact, and a group of “politicals” ran a parallel policy operation within the VA with their focus on privatization. The title describes the tone of the book, and veterans will read this and understand the threats they face from the exercise of raw political power at the VA. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase It Shouldn’t Be This Hard from

The Peppermint Tea Chronicles

Kindness. I admit to being a tea snob, and I can’t think of a more vile concoction that peppermint tea. I’m also a fan of Alexander McCall Smith’s writing, so I thoroughly enjoyed reading his latest compilation of pieces about the recurring cast of characters from 44 Scotland Street that were serialized in The Scotsman. The new book is titled, The Peppermint Tea Chronicles, and kindness abounds providing pleasure to fans of this series. Irene remains absent, to the delight of Stuart and Bertie. Lots of big and little things are happening to every member of the cast of characters, and fans will close the last page with a sigh as we await the next installments. Readers who enjoy fiction that lifts one’s spirits can start with this book and become enchanted and ready to read the series. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Peppermint Tea Chronicles from

Religion As We Know It

Brief. Jack Miles has written a lot about religion, and his latest book titled, Religion As We Know It, may be the briefest and most accessible. While he points readers toward The Norton Anthology of World Religions, for which he is general editor, it seemed to me that he’s using this little book to include things he couldn’t write in the anthology. Readers with a general interest in religion are those most likely to enjoy this book. Rating: Three-star (It’s ok) Click here to purchase Religion As We Know It from


Prescient. Ian Rankin wrote the novel, Westwind, in 1990, but it was first published in the United States in 2020. This is a thrilling story of alliances and betrayal that stands up well thirty years later, and in many ways was prescient about today’s world. While this novel is nothing like the author’s Rebus series, the plot is entertaining, the characters interesting and the story plausible. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Westwind from

Old Man Country: My Search for Meaning Among the Elders

Aging. Curiosity and his own aging led Thomas R. Cole to seek out perspectives from men over eighty, a growing cohort in the United States. In his book titled, Old Man Country: My Search for Meaning Among the Elders, Cole provides snippets of interviews with about a dozen old men, and intersperses aspects of his own life throughout. This short book broaches a topic many old men avoid, but I can assure readers that it’s safe to enter these waters. Whether a reader finds meaning or wisdom on these pages may depend on one’s individual situation. Ask me when I’m ninety if any of this makes sense. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Old Man Country from

Notre-Dame: A Short History of the Meaning of Cathedrals

Weep. Fans of Ken Follett’s lengthy novels may be shocked by his latest book titled, Notre-Dame: A Short History of the Meaning of Cathedrals. In fewer than one hundred pages, Follett offers a love letter to Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris. Readers weep with him following the recent fire, and he reminds us of why this place is so important and special. The restoration is still considered a 50-50 possibility, so read this book to be reminded of why this structure means so much, and then make a donation to support the work ahead. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Notre-Dame from

A Cruel Deception

Paris. The eleventh Bess Crawford novel by the writing duo called Charles Todd is titled, A Cruel Deception. This time out, the Great War has wound down, and the need for nurses has diminished. Bess remains conflicted about her future when Matron at The Queen Alexandra’s asks her to go to Paris on a personal mission regarding Matron’s son, Lawrence. Bess finds the man abusing laudanum, and AWOL from his job at the Peace Conference. Competent and diligent as always, Bess investigates what has troubled Lawrence, and her adventures in Paris and environs are exciting and dangerous. Fans of the series, and anyone who likes historical fiction are those most likely to enjoy this novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase A Cruel Deception from

Friday, February 7, 2020

Deep River

Saga. Don’t look past Karl Marlantes’ novel titled, Deep River, because of the size. He needs all seven hundred pages to pull us into the lives of determined people, living in rough places, working hard, and building families and communities. Three siblings leave Finland and settle in southern Washington state at the end of the nineteenth century. Marlantes describes logging, salmon fishing, and conflict between workers and owners. We spend decades with these siblings and a growing cast of characters facing a range of life events and challenges that propel the narrative. Fans of historical fiction that’s well-written are those readers most likely to enjoy this moving American story. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase Deep River from

Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead

Instructive. Former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis has too much class to write a tell-all book about his time in the Trump Administration, one of the many lessons he offers in his book titled, Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead. Mattis is a thoughtful reader and a lifelong learner. He packs this book with stories from his own life and insights that can apply to all readers. Mattis tells us of his childhood and the journey in the Marines to become a four-star general. Many of his lessons were hard won, and become instructive for all of us, especially those in leadership roles. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Call Sign Chaos from

The Gifted School

Deception. People have secrets and Bruce Holsinger pulls us into a swirl of deception in his novel titled, The Gifted School. After a Boulder, Colorado-like suburb announces competitive testing for a new school, the race is on for those families who want to secure places. Holsinger lets us gradually come to know four families, and their connected relationships. As we get to know the characters, we are drawn into a world of privilege and ambitions inside a community divided by income and class. Our feelings about different characters change over the course of the novel, and what causes us to laugh in one section can lead us to sadness in another. Spouses have kept secrets from each other. Children are not who we think they are. Readers can reflect about friendship and ambition while considering the steps we are willing to take for our children, and whether those steps are really for us or for the kids. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Gifted School from

A Warning

Credibility. Can you recall the time when many medical doctors smoked? If such a doctor warned a patient about the dangers of smoking, do you think the advice would be credible? After I finished reading the book titled, A Warning, by an anonymous author, I thought about the credibility of the writer and how I could possibly assess it. This book is an inside view of the Trump administration by a senior official. The story does not place Trump and his allies in a positive light. Concerned citizens may be aghast at parts of what is described on these pages. Supporters of President Trump may focus away from the content and toward the author. My assessment is that it will take time for historians to affirm or dismiss what this book describes about President Trump and those around him. In the meantime, those readers looking for an insider’s assessment of the White House will find one view in this alarming book. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase A Warning from

The Queen: The Forgotten Life Behind an American Myth

Criminal. I thought the trope of the Chicago welfare queen was a racist whistle used by politicians, especially Ronald Reagan, to drum up votes. While there were plenty of lies and a framework of racism at play, there actually was a woman who committed major fraud among other crimes in Illinois. In his book titled, The Queen: The Forgotten Life Behind an American Myth, Josh Levin tells us the true story of Linda Taylor (who used lots of names), and the truth is sad. Taylor was a con artist, a welfare cheat, and probably a murderer. Her evil deeds are presented in detail in this book, and if it were fiction, we would find it too improbable. The true story lands as a recital of a troubled life and a criminal who treated everyone with contempt and used others for her own ends. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Queen from

In West Mills

Knot. I fell in love with the people and the place so finely presented in De’Shawn Charles Winslow’s debut novel titled, In West Mills. Protagonist Azalea “Knot” Centre is a force to be reckoned with, sober or otherwise. Readers move into the small town and we come to understand the secrets and complications of normal lives in this tender and warm story. We love and we want to be loved. We want to be free and we are often selfish. We may not know where we came from or where we are going, so we plod along doing our best. Love endures. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase In West Mills from

Lost Children Archive

Found. Fans of finely written literary fiction are those readers most likely to enjoy Valeria Luiselli’s novel titled, Lost Children Archive. I can’t begin to describe the ways in which Luiselli uses multiple elements to contribute to an imaginative and coherent whole. A family of four travels out West to document sounds and search for children who have been lost crossing the Southern border. The prose remains powerful throughout, and the raw humanity in multiple situations will break your heart. We can feel tension building on the journey, and by the time the tension is relieved, we will all have found something important. Through the voices of the ten-year-old boy and five-year-old girl, we learn about ourselves, one of the many reasons we read fiction. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Lost Children Archive from

Like Lions

Women. The violence on Bull Mountain from Brian Panowich’s debut novel of that name returns with revenge in his novel titled, Like Lions. Sheriff Clayton Burroughs finds himself in pain and withdrawing from life with his wife, Kate, and their child. The legacy of crime in his family and in this location weighs heavily. Because Clayton’s brother is dead, there’s a void in the criminal playing field, and those trying to fill the void provide the plot momentum for this novel. The novel is a story of revenge and retribution. Three women are the stars of this book: Kate, a character named Vanessa, and the ailing widow of the head of another crime family. Readers who enjoy crime fiction are those most likely to enjoy this novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Like Lions from

Women Talking

Response. We know the situation that led to the Mennonite women coming together to plan their future: they have realized that over the past two years they were drugged and raped by men in their isolated community. The novel titled, Women Talking, by Miriam Toews takes the true story of a community of women, and offers a fictional entry in the ways in which women relate to each other, take control of their loves, and exert power. There are different viewpoints expressed among the women gathered to consider their response: stay or leave; fight or flee. Toews writes with insight, sensitivity and wit as the resilience of the women in the novel show readers a path in life that may resonate for many. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Women Talking from

The Memory Police

Disappearance. Have you ever gone by a vacant lot and found yourself at a loss when you try to remember what had been on the site? Yoko Ogawa’s novel titled, The Memory Police, is set on an island where a powerful surveillance state causes items to disappear and for the memory of those items to be unlawful. People also disappear, especially those who have the ability to recall the disappeared items. After a struggling writer hides her editor from the police, fear and loss increase dramatically. The premise is frightening, the prose elegant, and the novel disturbing in all the right ways. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Memory Police from