Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Dirt: Adventures in Lyon as a Chef in Training, Father, and Sleuth Looking for the Secret of French Cooking

Essence. Readers with any interest in food, France, people, stories and relationships will find many things to enjoy while reading Bull Buford’s book titled, Dirt: Adventures in Lyon as a Chef in Training, Father, and Sleuth Looking for the Secret of French Cooking. My taste for this book started when I read Buford’s excerpt in The New Yorker about a baker named Bob in Lyon, France. When this book was released this month, I was prepared to devour it, and I did. Buford makes it all look easy. What he does is cook down people and stories until he uncovers the essence. It takes a while to realize that what we get in this book is the distillation of many years of his engagement with chefs, cooking, and writing. I encountered chef Michel Richard from his Citronelle restaurant in Washington and thought of him as a creative and whimsical restauranteur. I learned, as Buford did, that the late Richard was a traditional French chef, who avoided cooking those things that he had not yet found a way to make better than the traditional method. His dishes were rooted in tradition and made better thanks to his skill and creativity. That’s just one example from this book. Buford uses self-deprecating humor to move the story along, and his family’s experience to balance work and home life as he tried to learn all he could about French cooking. Pick your favorite menu item: the view as husband, father, apprentice chef, mentee, writer, friend; and savor this book’s richness. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase Dirt from amazon.com.

When All Is Said

Toasts. I highly recommend pairing five drams of Black Bush as you visit Ireland and join eighty-four-year-old protagonist Maurice Hannigan in the five toasts he makes in Anne Griffin’s debut novel titled, When All Is Said. There are secrets, love, loss, regret and great joy on these pages. Griffin writes with considerable skill and fleshes her characters with the complexity of behavior that readers recognize as authentic. Savor each toast and enjoy a grand story. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase When All Is Said from amazon.com.

She Lover of Death

Club. The eighth Fandorin mystery by Boris Akunin is a novel titled, She Lover of Death. A young and naïve protagonist, Masha Mironova, arrives in Moscow at the beginning of the 20th century and joins a club of mainly poets who are enamored with death. She becomes Columbine, wears a pet snake, and before long finds herself next in queue to commit suicide, thanks to the signs she has received. Events are heading off the cliff when Fandorin joins the club. Of course, you’ll have to read the novel if you want to find out what happens. Akunin plays with words and names in this novel in ways that will entertain many readers. Rating: Three-star (I like it) Click here to purchase She Lover of Death from amazon.com.

My Wife Said You May Want to Marry Me

More. Have tissues or a handkerchief nearby as you read Jason B. Rosenthal’s book titled, My Wife Said You May Want to Marry Me. Two weeks before she died of ovarian cancer, Jason’s wife, Amy Krause Rosenthal, wrote an op-ed piece for the Modern Love column in The New York Times titled, “You May Want to Marry My Husband.” This book is the story of Amy’s vibrant life, their marriage and family life, and the ways in which she made our world better through everything she did. Amy’s first word was “more.” Jason tells this story with grace and skill, pulling all readers into leading a meaningful life. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase My Wife Said You May Want to Marry Me from amazon.com.

Walk the Wire

Murders. The sixth Memory Man novel by David Baldacci featuring Amos Decker is a novel titled, Walk the Wire. Amos and partner Alex Jamison are sent by the FBI to North Dakota to investigate a murder. It takes lots of pages of exposition for us to know why this murder has brought in the FBI, and even Amos Decker’s perfect memory has trouble keeping track of the mayhem at play in this novel. Layers of secrets are eventually uncovered, to the satisfaction of close readers who ache to see every murder solved and the story brought to a satisfying resolution. As a bonus to Baldacci fans, the author brings characters from another series, Will Robie and Jessica Reel, to North Dakota to help out Amos and Alex. Fans of crime fiction, this author, and this series are those readers most likely to enjoy this novel and this series. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Walk the Wire from amazon.com.

Camino Winds

Storm. John Grisham gives readers an exciting return to Camino Island in his novel titled, Camino Winds. A major hurricane lands on the island causing major damage. Protagonist Bruce Cable’s bookstore and home come through the storm ok, but one of the island’s authors has died. Bruce and his posse suspect foul play, and the action of the novel involves their dogged investigation into this case. Fans of Grisham and action thrillers are those readers most likely to enjoy this novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Camino Winds from amazon.com.

Kingdom of Nauvoo: The Rise and Fall of a Religious Empire on the American Frontier

Rejection. Historian Benjamin E. Park uses newly released archival information from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to offer readers a concise view of the violent struggles on the American frontier in the 19th century in his book titled, Kingdom of Nauvoo: The Rise and Fall of a Religious Empire on the American Frontier. Park offers readers a serious look at the early years of the Mormons, and places them in the context of that time. For a brief period, they found acceptance and refuge in Illinois where they built a large utopian city, Nauvoo. Park describes the variety of forces that led to the abandonment of the city of Nauvoo and the rejection of the Mormons living in Illinois, forcing them to head West. Readers who enjoy history are those most likely to enjoy this book that blends well a national story with the growing power and popularity of a religion. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Kingdom of Nauvoo from amazon.com.

Saint X

Repercussions. One key event has repercussions in the many lives presented by Alexis Schaitkin in her debut novel titled, Saint X. At the end of the Thomas family’s vacation on a Caribbean island, eighteen-year-old Alison disappears and is found dead, changing forever the lives of her parents and her seven-year-old sister, Claire. Schaitkin carries readers along with a plot and multiple narrators weaving forward and backward in time as we learn what happened from various points of view. Claire is the novel’s protagonist, and her life has become consumed with learning what really happened to Alison and what her big sister was really like. Beneath the plot level, Schaitkin delves into issues of white privilege, racism and class differences. Through the impact of Alison in life and death on a number of minor characters, we see the repercussions of one person’s life on many others. The examination of multiple lives takes patience, but close readers will emerge from this novel with a heightened sense of the impact of any single event on multiple lives, for better or for worse, but certainly forever. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Saint X from amazon.com.

Trace Elements

Water. Fans will enjoy the return of Commissario Guido Brunetti in the twenty-ninth installment of the series by Donna Leon, a novel titled, Trace Elements. Set in Venice during a hot summer, Leon takes readers and Brunetti on an exciting murder case involving the quality of the water supply for Venice. The familiar cast of characters returns in this installment, and thanks to Leon’s writing skills, we feel that we are in Venice and we struggle with Brunetti in deciding the right things to do in the search for justice. Fans of crime fiction, especially of this series, are those readers most likely to enjoy this novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Trace Elements from amazon.com.

Hell and Other Destinations: A 21st-Century Memoir

Momentum. Madeline Albright’s memoir titled, Hell and Other Destinations: A 21st-Century Memoir, is packed with wit and wisdom. This former Secretary of State tells us of her life from 2001 to the present, a period for her that was packed with deciding what to do next and then after that, and then something else altogether. Her momentum is a force of nature as she accounts her life of ongoing service and engagement. Her prose is exciting, and her humor enchanting. Do something or get out of her way. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Hell and Other Destinations from amazon.com.

Friday, May 15, 2020

Fair Shot: Rethinking Inequality and How We Earn

Pitch. Facebook co-founded Chris Hughes pitches his recommendation for a guaranteed basic income for all Americans in his book titled, Fair Shot: Rethinking Inequality and How We Earn. In the context of the current high unemployment rate thanks to the efforts to reduce deaths from covid-19, the notion of a safety net in the form of guaranteed income will appeal to many individuals. The form Hughes describes might not be the best solution, but it is well worth taking into account as we explore alternatives to providing a baseline level of support through good times and bad. Rating: Three-star (It’s ok) Click here to purchase Fair Shot from amazon.com.

White Elephant

Neighbors. Some of us want to fit in and others want to stand out. In her debut novel titled, White Elephant, Julie Langsdorf brings us into a suburban neighborhood and the conflict between one homeowner whose new behemoth house dwarfs the neighbors, and irritates those who want things to remain the way they’ve been since the 1920s. The houses and the neighborhood provide the backdrop for the human relationships that are sparked by this conflict and the ways in which we are attracted and repelled. We don’t get to choose our neighbors, and in Langsdorf’s mix the results of an unintentional grouping provide an entertaining novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase White Elephant from amazon.com.

Before We Were Yours

Sisters. Lisa Wingate based her novel titled, Before We Were Yours, on the true story of an adoption agency that sold children. She gives readers a compelling and emotional story, packed with characters that readers will come to know and love or hate. The sisters in this story will stir your heart and might even produce a tear or two. You’ll be caught up in this novel from the beginning to the end and will come away carrying something of an emotional overload. If that’s what you’re looking for in a novel, this is the book for you. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Before We Were Yours from amazon.com.

Little Gods

Generations. The debut novel by Meng Jin titled, Little Gods, explores a question pondered often by the children of immigrants: where do we come from? Jin reveals the answer for protagonist Liya in the same way readers discover the story: in pieces, backwards and forwards, a gradual unveiling of events and memories to achieve understanding. We learn about physics, relationships and what inheritance means across generations. There are memories and ghosts, grief and joy. This novel offers more than the usually fraught mother-daughter relationship. Readers learn what’s involved in accepting reality and making decisions that we think are best. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Little Gods from amazon.com.

Will and Testament

Siblings. The parents and four siblings in the dysfunctional family described in Vigdis Hjorth’s novel set in Norway titled, Will and Testament, will draw readers into their world and then leave us thinking about them for a long time. Often in the novel it seemed as if each individual were a member of a family different from the one described by any one of the members. Perhaps that is true on some level for all families: certain formative experiences provide the lens through which all family life is viewed. The lens for one sibling in this novel is the sexual abuse she suffered from her father, and some siblings and her mother do not believe it really happened. Hjorth explores matters of what we inherit, and the effort by parents to treat children fairly when it comes to their estate. What recompense, though, for abuse? How can incest be weighed against the value of holiday cabins? There’s an emotional punch delivered on many pages of this finely written novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Will and Testament from amazon.com.

Infused: Adventures in Tea

Care. I admit to being a tea snob, so reading Henrietta Lovell’s book titled, Infused: Adventures in Tea, was right up my alley. I nodded at all the ways in which she’s passionate about good tea, and the care with which we should treat the finest tea leaves to capture the depth of flavor. As I’m writing this sentence, my bride has just arrived with a pot of Makaibari Estate Darjeeling, II Flush FTGFOP-1. It’s brewed perfectly, tastes marvelous and has a light golden color that captures my eye. Whether you’re a tea snob or not, if you like to taste delicious things, consider reading this book and expanding your tea consumption into some of the examples she describes along with her stories about the places and people who take care to bring us fine tea. When you’re ready to select tea to suit your palate, consider ordering from great tea merchants, my friends Bill and Janet Todd, at http://www.todd-holland.com/. Next, I’m thinking about brewing a nice China oolong from the mountains. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Infused from amazon.com.

Unworthy Republic: The Dispossession of Native Americans and the Road to Indian Territory

Expulsion. Fans of well-written history for general readers will appreciate the book by Claudio Saunt titled, Unworthy Republic: The Dispossession of Native Americans and the Road to Indian Territory. This University of Georgia teacher delivers a sober presentation of the expulsion of Native Americans from their homes and land. Saunt examines the rationale used to justify the displacement of people and documents the violence and cruelty as the policies were carried out. As contemporary readers, we discover some of the foundations of white supremacy in the United States, and the ways in which greed and incompetence can lead to disastrous results. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Unworthy Republic from amazon.com.

The Mountains Sing

Sacrifice. The first novel in English by poet Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai is titled, The Mountains Sing. The multigenerational story of the rise and fall and rise of members of the Trần family in Việt Nam will appeal to any reader or book group that loves to dive into fine writing that draws readers into the lives of people who sacrifice and suffer to obtain a better life. We follow members of the family from their land ownership and wealth prior to the rise of the Communists through the devastation that came from land reform and the wreckage of the Việt Nam War to the present time. This well-told story pulls us into family life and the actions taken to survive and reunite after separation. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase The Mountains Sing from amazon.com.

Are Snakes Necessary?

Remake. The novel by Brian DePalma and Susan Lehman titled, Are Snakes Necessary?, offers readers a homage to Alfred Hitchcock’s classic film, Vertigo, in print form, without being any form of remake. In this novel, a sleezy politician abuses a staffer and she exerts her just revenge. Sometimes novels with a cast of unappealing characters can be a real kick to read. This time, I found it all sad, empty and shallow. Some readers who like crime fiction will enjoy this novel, but I found the writing to be weak. Perhaps I would have enjoyed it more if it had been a movie. Rating: Three-star (It’s ok) Click here to purchase Are Snakes Necessary from amazon.com.


Intelligence. Fans of science fiction are those readers most likely to enjoy Max Barry’s novel titled, Providence. Humans and the aliens they call salamanders are in a war for the survival of their respective species. Four humans are selected using artificial intelligence to take the war to the salamanders in a gigantic battleship controlled by artificial intelligence. Barry explores the roles of humans in this AI-directed environment and presents a thrilling and compact story. Barry also helps readers think about the behavior of the salamanders and the AI software and what that means for humans. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase Providence from amazon.com.

Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Three Hours in Paris

Yank. Why did Adolph Hitler spend only three hours in Paris in June 1940? Cara Black offers one reason in her finely written spy thriller titled, Three Hours in Paris. An American woman named Kate Rees with great shooting skill has been recruited by the British to parachute into France to assassinate Hitler. As with most spy novels, nothing is ever quite as straightforward as that, so when Kate’s mission fails on one level, her Yank ingenuity leads her toward success of another kind. A talented Nazi detective named Gunter hunts Kate with his great skills. Black develops these characters and others with depth, while never easing the tension or relaxing the plot momentum. Fans of well written crime or spy fiction are those readers most likely to enjoy this novel. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase Three Hours in Paris from amazon.com.

Simon the Fiddler

Pursuit. Paulette Jiles sets her novel titled, Simon the Fiddler, in Texas as the Civil War is ending. Protagonist Simon Boudlin is a twenty-three-year-old musician who has avoided military service for both sides, thanks to his artistic skill. He pursues an indentured Irish servant with whom he falls in love. Jiles offers readers an enjoyable love story, surrounded by the atmosphere of life in post-war Texas. Fans of historical fiction are those readers most likely to enjoy this novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Simon the Fiddler from amazon.com.

The Coyotes of Carthage

Dark. A small town election in South Carolina provides the backdrop for Steven Wright’s debut novel titled, The Coyotes of Carthage. Protagonist Dre Ross has been sent by his firm with dark money to manipulate politics in the interest of a mining company client. Wright offers complex characters, a fast-paced plot, and a glimpse inside local politics and the ways in which outsiders can swing votes for hidden causes. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Coyotes of Carthage from amazon.com.

A Very Stable Genius: Donald J. Trump's Testing of America

Chaos. Since I read Philip Rucker and Carol D. Leonnig’s book titled, A Very Stable Genius: Donald J. Trump's Testing of America, during the April 2020 coronavirus White House briefings, the context for their book became for me “the good old days.” The authors are journalists at The Washington Post, so some readers will dismiss them as fake news and consider their book fiction or certainly biased. Other readers will find detailed reporting of the chaos during the first few years of the Trump administration. The authors clearly sourced material from people who were “in the room” and present readers with lots of material about the president and those around him. Many potential readers are weary of the chaos, but those interested in public affairs will find this book to be one of the best to report this ongoing story. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase A Very Stable Genius from amazon.com.


Fragments. In her short novel titled, Weather, Jenny Offill spits out fragments of the life of a librarian named Lizzie. As readers flit from piece to piece, we laugh, scratch our heads, and occasionally re-read a sentence or two with great joy. Offill can make climate change funny, and for that reason alone, some readers are grateful for her skills. No fragment lasts long, so like the weather, it changes quickly whether you’re in the sunshine or in a storm. Fans of contemporary literary fiction are those readers most likely to enjoy this novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Weather from amazon.com.

This Is Chance!: The Shaking of an All-American City, A Voice That Held It Together

Earthquake. Readers who enjoy uplifting stories about people helping others are those most likely to enjoy Jon Mooallem’s book titled, This Is Chance!: The Shaking of an All-American City, A Voice That Held It Together. Mooallem tells the story of the Great Alaskan Earthquake of 1964, much of it from the perspective of Genie Chance, a radio broadcaster who found herself able to help others by staying on the radio in Anchorage and keeping people informed and helping point people in the direction of helping one another. This is a great character study of Genie Chance, of the can-do attitude of newcomers in Anchorage, and the human goodness of people who just step up to do what needs to be done. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase This Is Chance from amazon.com.

Brooklyn, The Once and Future City

Hardscape. If you’ve ever lived in Brooklyn, as I have, you know that your heart can and will break. In his book titled, Brooklyn, The Once and Future City, Thomas J. Campanella offers a large and loving picture of this special place. He focuses a lot on the physical space: buildings, parks, roads, while keeping the interest of readers through the heroes and villains of each time period he explores. If you love Brooklyn, you’re likely to enjoy reading this book, and will wish Campanella told more about the life and love you know has penetrated this place for centuries. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Brooklyn from amazon.com.


Happiness. What do we desire? In his book titled, Cleanness, Garth Greenwell pulls readers into episodes in the life of an American professor in Sofia, Bulgaria. Some of the glimpses seem ordinary, while others pack deep intensity. Each sentence reinforces Greenwell’s writing skill and pulls readers into a structure that provides understanding about life. What we desire is happiness. It can come in surprising, ordinary, expected or dramatic ways. Bliss can be achieved when what we can do to make someone else happy also brings happiness to us. Fans of literary fiction who appreciate superb writing are those most likely to enjoy this book. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Cleanness from amazon.com.

The Good Killer

Complexity. Fans of crime thrillers are those readers most likely to enjoy Harry Dolan’s novel titled, The Good Killer. After protagonist Sean Tennant shoots and kills a gunman who was wreaking havoc and death in a Houston shopping mall, the fast-paced action accelerates. Sean’s act to kill garnered admiration by many, but he didn’t hang around to receive it. He began to flee Texas and pick up his partner, Molly Winter, from a retreat in Montana, so they could start a fresh life someplace else. Sean knew that the photos of his good deed would spread and rouse interest in people from his past to come after him and Molly. Dolan keeps the action moving and creates believable and complex characters whose behavior is a complex mix of right and wrong. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Good Killer from amazon.com.

Redhead by the Side of the Road

Connections. Micah Mortimer, protagonist of Anne Tyler’s novel titled, Redhead by the Side of the Road, strives for order and perfection. Tyler tosses surprises into Micah’s life and incomplete interpersonal connections become transparent. Each of us needs someone in our lives who helps us see ourselves as we really are. Sometimes our routine becomes more important than paying attention to the love in our lives. The portrait of Micah may not look like any of us, but his complexity and humanity will be familiar and offer a glimpse into what lives can become when we are open to love. As always, Tyler draws us into the story, keeps us close, and brings us home by the end. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase Redhead by the Side of the Road from amazon.com.