Thursday, April 23, 2020

The Body in Question

Dalliance. Jill Cimint makes thinking about mortality and morality flow on the pages of her novel titled, The Body in Question. Protagonist Hannah, also known as juror C-2, finds herself with mixed feelings about being sequestered on the jury of a sensational murder trial. As the possibility of a dalliance with Graham, juror F-17, unfolds, she rationalizes this as a last fling, and minimizes any effect of this affair on her much older husband. Mortality inhabits every page of this novel, and the moral choices predictably lead to consequences. Cimint writes with great efficiency in this novel, and her insight into human nature unfolds with wisdom as the narrative progresses. There’s really nothing casual about a dalliance when Cimint gets her hands on it. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Body in Question from

The Hook

Rehab. The fifth novel by Tim O’Mara to feature former cop Raymond Donne is titled, The Hook. The dramatic action opens on the roof of the school where Donne teaches, the place where Maurice MoJo Joseph is shot to death with an arrow. Mojo’s life seemed to be turning around after a stint in rehab, but at the time he died, heroin was in his system. While Donne investigates, his girlfriend Allisson writes stories about White Nationalists, thanks to a runaway and insider who has confided in her. The plot pulls readers into the action quickly, and fans of thrillers and this series are those most likely to enjoy this novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Hook from

Wow, No Thank You

Deadpan. I could not drink any beverage while reading Samantha Irby’s book titled, Wow, No Thank You. Liquid in my mouth was prone to gush out as I was compelled to laugh with gusto at an image, word or finely turned phrase in this funny book. Whenever she describes her awkwardness in a social situation, readers can be confident that she will mine that feeling for all the possible humor that could be present. When she starts a riff, you’re never sure when you will laugh out loud, but chances are high that you will. Readers with a funny bone that could use a good tickle are those most likely to enjoy the fine and funny writing in this book. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Wow No Thank You from

The Killing Tide

Discovery. The fifth Commissaire Dupin novel by Jean-Luc Bannalac is titled, The Killing Tide. I thought a good mystery would be ideal covid-19 reading, but instead I found myself bogged down with Dupin in a difficult case on an island where he did not want to be (either). Every now and then I could smell the sea air and salivate when the narrative turned to Brittany food. Murders are complicated in this installment, as is the possible discovery of an object of great value. Dupin and his team try to stay a step ahead and are thwarted at every turn. Fans of crime fiction and this series are those readers most likely to enjoy this novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Killing Tide from

Original Prin

Antics. The pace begins with a sharp hook of a first sentence in Randy Boyagoda’s novel titled, Original Prin. “Eight months before he became a suicide bomber, Prin went to the zoo with his family.” With that opener, the antics begin and continue nonstop for another 225 pages, the first installment in what is intended to be a trilogy. Protagonist Prin is a middle aged academic at a failing university and he has been diagnosed with cancer. One minute he is a practicing Catholic, and the next he prepares to become a terrorist. I don’t have a clue where the next installment will lead Prin and the rest of us, but this opener was fun to read and will appeal to those readers who enjoy satire. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Original Prin from


Magic. In her debut novel titled, Wonderblood, Julia Whicker presents a future United States where we have turned away from science and toward magic. Science failed half the world’s population as it did not protect people from disease. We turn to faith and interpret portents and provide blood sacrifice to ward off danger. Violent factions struggle for control and the locus for worship becomes Cape Canaveral, a relic of a time long past. Whicker offers interesting characters, political machinations, and an apocalyptic vision that will make many readers shiver. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Wonderblood from

The Capital

Pigs. Robert Menasse presents readers with an astute take on the tension between nationalism and union in Europe in his novel titled, The Capital. Set in Brussels, we get to enjoy the dysfunction of the bureaucracy, in which Auschwitz is selected as the best location for a celebration, and pigs take center stage in the plot. While comic in many respects, the novel helps readers reflect on the importance of those institutions that can bridge our differences. We need novels like this one to hold up for us our absurdities and lead us to think about what’s important. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Capital from

Final Option

Nemesis. The fourteenth installment of Clive Cussler’s Oregon Files series is a novel titled, Final Option. Chairman Juan Cabrillo and the crew of the Oregon face a doppelganger of their ship and a talented nemesis who has plotted his revenge against Cabrillo for a long time. As expected with formulaic fiction, Juan proves that he is a worthy adversary. The action will appeal to many readers, and the pace is always exciting. Rating: Three-star (It’s ok) Click here to purchase Final Option from

Mostly Dead Things

Taxidermy. Fans of literary fiction are those readers most likely to enjoy Kristen Arnett’s debut novel titled, Mostly Dead Things. Narrator Jessa pulls readers into the family grief following the death of her father. As the title indicates, there’s a lot of death around, and the taxidermy business is just one part of it. The prose is finely written, the characters complex and on the weird side. Rating: Three-star (It’s ok) Click here to purchase Mostly Dead Things from

The Second-Worst Restaurant in France

Redemption. The second novel in the Paul Stuart series by prolific writer Alexander McCall Smith is titled, The Second-Worst Restaurant in France. Paul joins his cousin, Chloe, at a rented house in the French countryside where he intends to work on writing a cookbook. Once settled into the local community, all thought of writing disappears, as Paul does all he can to help turnaround a restaurant and a village. As always with Smith, the theme is upbeat. Characters are finding themselves, and there is a leap toward redemption that will make all readers feel good about themselves, their neighbors, and human nature overall. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Second-Worst Restaurant in France from

Thursday, April 16, 2020

How to Forget: A Daughter's Memoir

Grief. As another child of an alcoholic Catholic father, I felt an empathy with the author as I read Kate Mulgrew’s memoir titled, How to Forget: A Daughter’s Memoir. I approached the book expecting less candor than the talented actor delivers in this emotional and vulnerable book. Written from a place of grief following the death of both parents, the book is packed with love and caring as well as understanding while still disclosing the suffering among so many of the individuals described. There’s wit and self-deprecation and the telling of interesting family stories. Most of all, this is a tribute by a daughter infused with love. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase How to Forget from

The Glass Hotel

Revelations. The canvas of Emily St. John Mandel’s novel titled, The Glass Hotel, involves the whole world from 1958 to 2029. I apologize for that spoiler, because the canvas takes a while to uncover. Mandel delivers scenes, narrators and time periods that gradually reveal their connections. The complex characters are so finely drawn that we can anticipate behavior well in advance as we participate through reading in the revelations of what may have been present all along. Protagonist Vincent is a talented bartender in a remote luxury hotel. She is also a prolific filmmaker whose structure involves five minute takes of what seems like nothing. The owner of the hotel, Jonathan Alkaitis, heads a successful investment firm that manages money. We learn early on that his success comes from the Ponzi scheme he has been running. Vincent leaves the hotel to join Alkaitis in a role where most consider her as his wife. As the opaque becomes transparent and what seems transparent become opaque, Mandel leads readers on a delightful reading journey that I enjoyed from beginning to end. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase The Glass Hotel from

The Lost Book of Adana Moreau

Structure. I enjoyed reading Michael Zapata’s debut novel titled, The Lost Book of Adana Moreau, for several key reasons. I’m a sucker for great storytelling, and the multiple stories and time periods that Zapata connects in this novel kept me fully engaged. The scope of this work could have led some writers to bloat the prose, but Zapata uses great discipline throughout this novel and his finely written prose included no wasted words. The overall structure of the novel is complex enough to challenge the closest reader, and Zapata seems to build the universes he creates with ease. Fans of literary fiction are those readers most likely to appreciate this finely written novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Lost Book of Adana Moreau from

The Last Taxi Driver

Insights. Every time I finished laughing about a scene in Lee Durkee’s novel titled, The Last Taxi Driver, I found myself reflecting about the insight into human nature that the funny scene captured. Protagonist Lou is a taxi driver in Mississippi working lots of hours and barely making ends meet. His kindness to others allows him to take on the unplanned role of wounded healer, as Carl Jung would describe him. He treats taxi passengers with respect and dignity hiding beneath his veneer of exasperation at the antics from others and his own descent into darkness. Durkee’s writing glistens on these pages, making this novel a real joy to read, especially for fans of literary fiction who also have a fully functioning funny bone. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Last Taxi Driver from

The Bishop's Bedroom

Sultry. The cover of the late Piero Chiara’s novel titled, The Bishop’s Bedroom, announces the contents with clarity. Sailing around Lake Maggiore and seeing the fine houses invites a rise in sexual tension as a cast of sultry characters tack around each other supported or stalled by the winds of attraction. Set in 1946 in Northern Italy, the atmosphere that Chiara offers pulls readers into that place and time with great skill. The opaque characters lie to one another with ease, and readers are the observers of the loose bonds that new relationships provide. One can almost feel the rubbery nature of idleness that imbeds in their lives that summer following the world war. I read this novel in winter in Chicago and within these pages, everything was sultry. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Bishop’s Bedroom from

Out East: Memoir of a Montauk Summer

Shallow. My bride has known for decades that I will read anything. She continues to marvel that I actually do read anything. John Glynn’s memoir titled, Out East: Memoir of a Montauk Summer, tells what he did one summer when he was in his twenties. Why should any reader care? Glynn faced truly first world situations in this recitation about a charmed life. While there is angst galore, the memoir is neither deep nor reflective. We read an account of a shallow young man finding his identity as he comes of age. He does this in a setting of great privilege. Read a sample before you commit to this memoir. Rating: Two-star (I didn’t like it) Click here to purchase Out East from

In the Dream House

Abuse. In her memoir titled, In the Dream House, Carmen Maria Machado explores emotional abuse from a variety of perspectives. Thanks to her fine writing and persistent wit, readers are unlikely to become morose or depressed after reading this book. We can read memoirs to understand things about human nature, including behavior in forms we have not experienced ourselves. The result is a greater appreciation and empathy for what each of us can face, and insight into those interpersonal dynamics that can operate at many different levels. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase In the Dream House from

Curious Toys

Pin. You don’t need to be familiar with the Chicago amusement park, Riverview, to enjoy Elizabeth Hand’s novel titled, Curious Toys. Set in the Summer of 1915, protagonist Pin is the fourteen-year-old daughter of a fortune teller, and she has the run of the park, often dressed like a boy. An environment of fun and some mischief turns dark after a girl is murdered. All the characters are finely drawn, and even Charlie Chaplin makes an appearance. The settings are described vividly, the characters are complex and compelling, and the plot is thrilling. Pin is an absolute delight. Fans of historical fiction, especially of this time period, are those most likely to enjoy this finely written novel. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase Curious Toys from

The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz

Persistent. Whether you know a lot or a little about Winston Churchill, you’re likely to enjoy Erik Larson’s book titled, The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz, an account of the prime minister’s first year in that role beginning in May 1940, a time of great peril. Larson presents the intensity of that time with skill. We can almost feel the German bombs falling on England. Lord Beaverbrook, Professor Lindemann and many others deliver for Churchill and country. Larson captures Churchill’s persistence in the face of opposition at home and from the enemy. Churchill’s mastery of American relations with Roosevelt, Hopkins, and Harriman come to life thanks to Larson’s lively writing. Readers who enjoy well written history for general audiences are those most likely to enjoy this book. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Splendid and the Vile from

The Lake of Learning

Cathars. I know very little about the Cathars, so when I picked up Steve Berry’s novella titled, The Lake of Learning, I knew he’d teach me something, especially by his inclusion of author’s notes separating fact from fiction. Recurring protagonist Cassiopeia Vitt is back, and while Cotton Malone makes just a brief cameo, fans of the series can see Vitt at her best as she finds herself in possession of a valuable key to a Cathar treasure. Readers who like action novels and are open to learning a thing or two about events in 13th century France are those most likely to enjoy this novella. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Lake of Learning from

Thursday, April 9, 2020

The Swallows

Objectification. The prep school as a petri dish for growing diseased human behavior may be overdone in fiction, but Lisa Lutz uses the setting with skill in her novel titled, The Swallows. After Alexandra Witt reluctantly joins the faculty at Stonebridge Academy, her creative writing assignment becomes a reagent to identify the rot of abhorrent behavior at this coed school. We’re drawn into a toxic environment in which female students are objectivized by males in an organized and systematic way. We see the power dynamics at work in the school and the escalation of the resistance by the female students to the system. There were times I felt guilty for laughing and wondered if Lutz led me successfully into that trap. Some of her phrases made me stop as she caught me by surprise. Provided your appetite for reading about oral sex exists, this novel is a way of seeing MeToo in yet one more dimension. Rating: Three-star (It’s ok) Click here to purchase The Swallows from

Second Sight

Revelations. Patient readers who can enjoy the slow simmering as a crime novel builds gradually are those most likely to enjoy Aoife Clifford’s novel titled, Second Sight. Set in Australia, protagonist Eliza Carmody, returns to her hometown and stumbles into family secrets and revelations. The connection between crimes in the present and ones from the past make this novel complex and interesting. The search for the truth is worth the slow pace because there are rewards to be found when secrets are revealed. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Second Sight from

The Last Passenger

Slavery. The third prequel to the popular Charles Lenox mystery series by Charles Finch is a novel set in 1855 titled, The Last Passenger. Young Charles matures in this installment as he falls in love while solving a complicated murder case. Finch focuses on an important issue of that time around the world: slavery. As usual, the fine writing exposes deep understanding of human nature. The characters are interesting and complex. The plot entertains and the mystery is clever. Fans of crime fiction and this series are those most likely to enjoy this novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Last Passenger from

Arguing with Zombies: Economics, Politics, and the Fight for a Better Future

Clarity. Among economists, including other Nobel prize winners, Paul Krugman writes with clarity. Over the past two decades, he uses the platform of The New York Times to convey his voice about a variety of issues with stark, often blunt, clarity, and he takes on foes mercilessly. In a book titled, Arguing with Zombies: Economics, Politics, and the Fight for a Better Future, Krugman organizes a collection of past columns by topic, and opens each theme with his current perspective, often involving how he was right then and he is right now. Whether you agree or disagree with Krugman, he writes with great skill and, as the title indicates, he continues to do battle with dead ideas: the zombie notions that have been proven wrong again and again but never seem to die. So, read about tax cuts, deficits, trade wars, social security, inequality, austerity, the climate and more. Smile when you agree, fume when you disagree, but admire his clarity. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Arguing with Zombies from

Coconut Layer Cake Murder

Predictable. The twenty fifth novel by Joanne Fluke to feature baker and amateur detective Hannah Swensen is titled, Coconut Layer Cake Murder. The formula provides comfort to those readers who enjoy a straightforward plot that involves a crime, and the ways in which Hannah is placed in personal jeopardy as she identifies the perpetrator. Part of the formula includes baking and recipes at the end of each chapter. My record remains intact: I have not yet copied or made a single recipe. Even my sweet tooth can’t indulge the way the characters in Lake Eden Minnesota pack down the cookies and cakes. Fans of the series will love the reprise of a large cast of beloved characters, and Hannah’s trip to California provides a change of pace early in this installment. I think I’ll go eat an apple. Rating: Three-star (It’s ok) Click here to purchase Coconut Layer Cake Murder from

Why We're Polarized

Identity. The key message by Ezra Klein in his book titled, Why We’re Polarized, is that we are getting the political environment that we have consciously created since the 1960s after the Civil Rights Act led southern Democrats to become Republicans, and instead of both parties having liberal and conservative members, the parties moved to the poles of one being conservative and the other liberal. If you’re not fed up yet, things will only get worse. Even so-called independents identify more often with one political party over the other. Klein makes identity the lens to which we can observe what has polarized us. Klein has a knack for synthesis and for being a good explainer. It all makes sense as one reads it. On further reflection, what seemed conclusive becomes simplistic and a realization strikes that there are other lenses with which one can examine polarization in American life. That said, any reader interested in public affairs should consider reading this book to incorporate Klein’s synthesis into one’s own thinking about contemporary life. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Why We’re Polarized from

Deacon King Kong

Sportcoat. Readers looking for a funny novel with terrific characters, spot perfect dialogue and all around great writing should pick up James McBride’s novel titled, Deacon King Kong. The title refers to the protagonist, a church deacon with a penchant for the moonshine called King Kong, and whom everyone calls Sportcoat. Set in a Brooklyn housing project in 1969, the novel is packed with a cast of engaging characters, living and dead, and relationships that pass the test of time. I kept copying phrases like “…your cheese done slid off your cracker.” (p. 44) Add to the recipe guns, drugs, the mob, and a long-held secret, and the result is hours of hilarious reading pleasure. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase Deacon King Kong from

A Long Petal of the Sea

Refuge. My frame of mind as I started reading Isabel Allende’s novel titled, A Long Petal of the Sea, involved feeling a little sorry for myself. Disrupted by a stay at home order to slow the spread of Covid 19, I felt thrown off kilter by constraints on my regular activities. After I few pages into this finely written novel, I lost all sense of my situation as I felt the plight of the protagonists needing to leave Spain during the civil war and becoming refugees in Chile. While at my own home, I thought about the importance of a sense of home in all our lives. Allende explores a relationship from the 1930s through the 1990s, and along the way, we understand more about the nature of hope, what constitutes belonging, and how love grows over time and across obstacles. Fans of well written literary fiction are those readers most likely to enjoy this novel. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase A Long Petal of the Sea from

Crime in Progress: Inside the Steele Dossier and the Fusion GPS Investigation of Donald Trump

Vindicated. For those readers who have the appetite for an inside story about one of the misunderstood and overspun stories of recent years, Fusion GPS founders Glenn Simpson and Peter Fritsch offer a book titled, Crime in Progress: Inside the Steele Dossier and the Fusion GPS Investigation of Donald Trump. These former Wall Street Journal reporters started a business in 2010 that conducts investigations, finding data for the use of their clients in business and politics. When a client approached them to investigate Donald Trump’s finances, they uncovered a treasure trove of information including lawsuits and shady dealings with Russian oligarchs and gangsters. Readers can sense the weariness that settled on the authors when their little business became the focal point for political machinations. Read the book to unspin what you think you know, and you’re likely to conclude, as I did, that their work product represented accurate research and investigations that were later proven to be true. The authors may rightly feel vindicated, but they will never recover the lost time and expenses involved in defending themselves from partisan attacks. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Crime in Progress from

Guilty Not Guilty

Siblings. Fans of the long running crime series by the Francis family may find something a bit different in the latest novel. Good and evil coexist within each of us. While Felix Francis emphasizes one aspect or the other in the major characters of his novel titled, Guilty Not Guilty, we can’t escape the fact that we do both good and evil of one sort or the other, and none of us is wholly good or wholly evil. The connection to horse racing is limited in this novel, and a more dominant theme involves the relationship of siblings. Mystery fans will love the murder, and thoughtful readers will close this book and be led to think a bit rather than pick up something else to read. Rating: Three-star (It’s ok) Click here to purchase Guilty Not Guilty from