Thursday, July 23, 2020


Bram. Are you missing live theater during the covid-19 pandemic? Spend a few hours with Joseph O’Connor’s novel titled, Shadowplay, and you’ll be in London’s West End during the time of Jack the Ripper and walking alongside Bram Stoker at work in the theater. Sometimes we read fiction for a glorious escape from contemporary life, and O’Connor gives that to us in this finely written novel. While this is a Dracula backstory, it is also a story of passion and ambition in a setting that will delight most readers, but especially theatregoers who long to return to those wonderful places. Night becomes a time of danger and opportunity in Victorian England, and Stoker is in the middle of things that will spark the imagination of readers of this entertaining novel. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase Shadowplay from

Sorry For Your Trouble

Characters. Fans of superb writing especially in short form fiction are those most likely to enjoy the collection by Richard Ford titled, Sorry For Your Trouble, containing nine short stories. The characters in these stories face all sorts of contemporary troubles, and Ford’s spare language captures their predicaments with precision and insight. There’s complexity and subtlety in most sentences, and Ford builds his characters with great care into forms that we recognize and understand. These characters are people we know and at the same time are individuals we have never met. We’ve overheard the dialogue in these stories. We have seen these characters in our community, and yet Ford makes them fresh and offers us wise reflections that apply to our own lives. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase Sorry For Your Trouble from

After the End

Divergent. Clare Mackintosh’s emotionally taut novel is titled, After the End. Parents Max and Pip face a difficult choice in how to treat their brain damaged child, Dylan. The tension in the novel comes when the parents diverge in choosing the best approach in caring for Dylan. Mackintosh explores these relationships, the heart wrenching decisions that need to be made, and the meaning of quality of life. She reveals ways in which the divergent paths might play out over time. I learned at the end of the novel that the story is a personal one for the author who faced a similar situation. Writers are often advised to write about what they know, and it is with emotional depth and great skill and personal knowledge that Mackintosh describes the most difficult choices that parents may ever make. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase After the End from

The Rabbit Effect: Live Longer, Happier, and Healthier with the Groundbreaking Science of Kindness

Kindness. I find it hard to not apply a covid-19 lens to what I read during the pandemic. So, when I read Kelli Harding’s book titled, The Rabbit Effect: Live Longer, Happier, and Healthier with the Groundbreaking Science of Kindness, I couldn’t help but think how a little bit of kindness to others would go a long a way these days. After all, we’re just being asked to wash our hands, practice social distancing, and wear a mask when indoors with others or at times when we can’t keep a safe distance away. These are times when many of us will benefit from thinking about our health in new ways. This book helps us understand the interaction of body and mind, and the ways in which we may be missing pieces of what’s critical to our health. Harding learned this through a rabbit study, and readers of this book can learn some missing pieces that can make our lives happier and healthier. Also, wash your hands, maintain physical distance from others, and wear the damn mask. How hard is it to be nice? Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Rabbit Effect from

Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line

Missing. Disappearing children in Deepa Anaparra’s debut novel titled, Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line, will make your blood run cold. Anaparra describes life in a city in India, and what parents, police and children do after children begin to go missing. The descriptive prose offers a setting in vivid detail, and the perspectives of different characters draw us into what for most of us will be an unfamiliar environment. The fine storytelling propels us to turn pages as we begin to care deeply about these characters, especially the children. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line from

People, Power, and Profits: Progressive Capitalism for an Age of Discontent

Progressive. If you think everything is peachy these days, don’t bother reading Nobel prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz’ book titled, People, Power, and Profits: Progressive Capitalism for an Age of Discontent. Assuming that most readers will see a smidgen or two of trouble ahead for the world, those who pick up this book will find a cogent prescription which Stiglitz calls “progressive capitalism.” Those readers interested in public policy will find in this book a clear description of trends and a way to enjoy the benefits from markets while building a system of effective controls and balances. There’s no waffling ambiguity in this book. All readers can understand exactly what Stiglitz thinks we should do next. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase People Power and Profits from

On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal

Collaborative. I confess to waiting to read Naomi Klein’s book titled, On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal, until a stifling heat wave arrived. Warm or cold, Klein’s message resonates: people all over the world need to collaborate to address climate change. This book is a collection of her essays over the course of two decades. She pulls together the connections between the climate crisis, underregulated capitalism, economic inequality, systemic racism, adverse health conditions, emigration for survival and more. Whether you agree or disagree with Klein’s views, you are likely to find that she describes her position with clarity and passion. It seems reasonable that we collaborate to work toward better outcomes for all. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase On Fire from


Exciting. Philippa Gregory begins her Fairmile series with a novel titled, Tidelands. Set in Sussex during the English Civil War, protagonist Alinor is a hardworking midwife eking out a living for herself and her two children while not knowing whether her missing husband is dead or alive. A large cast of characters includes the activities of both Roundheads and Cavaliers. Gregory draws us into stories of how the divisions in the country play out even in the most remote locations. Just when Gregory leads us to think events are heading in one direction, there’s a twist to carry us to a different place. We’re left wondering what happens to Alinor next, the answer to which will wait until the next installment in the series, set during the Restoration. Fans of historical fiction that includes well-developed characters are those most likely to enjoy this novel and this series. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Tidelands from


Camel. I typically skip reading any books set in the past in the American West because the myths they present can be so predictable and weary to plod through. So I stared at Téa Obreht’s novel titled, Inland, for months before I opened it. Fans of fine literary fiction will enjoy her gorgeous prose, even when ghosts are involved. Readers who enjoy interesting and complex characters will appreciate both Nora who struggles after her husband left and Lurie who runs from his past but is well known because of the camel he rides. I never felt the plot was predictable, and I never tired of her prose. Those of us who travel with Obreht to Arizona in the 1890s are richly rewarded with fine writing about interesting people in a well-described place. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Inland from

Mayflower Lives: Pilgrims in a New World and the Early American Experience

Personal. Thanks to covid-19, there will be no vacation trip to Cape Cod in Summer 2020, so I took a virtual journey to that area thanks to reading Martyn Whittock’s book titled, Mayflower Lives: Pilgrims in a New World and the Early American Experience. Whittock profiles fourteen individuals as a way to personalize the lives of the saints and strangers who came to the New World in the 17th century. One of those profiled is my namesake, Stephen Hopkins, one of the strangers and not a saint, probably the only thing we have in common. Every time I read a book about this time and place, I learn something new. Fans of history are those readers most likely to enjoy the well-told stories in this book. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Mayflower Lives from

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Make It Scream, Make It Burn

Range. There’s a wide range of topics in the collection of essays by Leslie Jamison titled, Make It Scream, Make It Burn. Her writing is what’s constant: a sharp eye and the ability to choose words with care and precision. There’s a sensation of loneliness that captures a reader, whether found in a whale or a person. There’s a close examination of the self and a way of seeing distant places in a new way. There were times while reading this that I felt as if I were following Jamison’s own curiosity, examining something until sense began to penetrate her big brain. Intelligent readers are those most likely to enjoy these finely written essays. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Make It Scream Make It Burn from

Swimming in the Dark

Choices. In his debut novel titled, Swimming in the Dark, Tomasz Jedrowski brings readers to 1980s Poland and into the lives of two young men who fall in love as they spend time together in the countryside after attending a summer agricultural camp. Ludwik and Janusz choose different paths when they return to Warsaw. One does what is expected to rise in the Communist party, and the other protests against the government. The story is compelling, the writing somewhat melancholy, and the situation relatable for many people around the world who search for both love and freedom. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Swimming in the Dark from

The Book of Dust: The Secret Commonwealth

Journey. The second installment of Philip Pullman’s Book of Dust trilogy is a novel titled, The Book of Dust: The Secret Commonwealth. Don’t even think about reading this without having read the earlier novel. For returning fans, Lyra and Malcolm are back, and over the course of 650 pages, they are on a journey. As with most middle novels of a trilogy, there’s lots of exposition and little resolution in this installment. We’re left with a cliffhanger and an unknown publication date for the finale. Some journeys take longer than others, so we wait. Maybe George R.R. Martin will fill our time with something new. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Secret Commonwealth from

The Heap

Recovery. Sean Adams’ debut novel titled, The Heap, pulls readers into an examination of what we build, what collapses, and what it takes to restore what is important. Los Verticalés was a 500-story residential building in the desert that has collapsed. Protagonist Orville Anders works on a dig site where he is looking for his brother, Bernard, who survived the collapse and broadcasts a radio show from the rubble called the Heap. Adams explores what life in Los Verticalés was like before the collapse, and what was different for those on the outer units who had windows compared to those on the inner units who relied on digital screens. The workers at the dig site form a community of their own in CamperTown, and Adams uses all three communities as fodder for his satire. Many readers will find this to be a compelling story, and others will come away from it ready to reflect on the creation of community life. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Heap from

The Authenticity Project

Revelations. We present a façade to the world and the “truth” we tell even ourselves may not get to the root of who we are. In her novel titled, The Authenticity Project, Clare Pooley uses a clever conceit to lead characters to reveal their true selves: a plain journal in which individuals have disclosed themselves and left the journal for others to find. What follows is part romantic comedy and part deep insight into the nature of our human connections. If reading this book doesn’t uplift you, I don’t know what to suggest, except perhaps reading another novel by the prolific Alexander McCall Smith. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Authenticity Project from

Vera Kelly Is Not a Mystery

Felix. Having told readers who ex-CIA agent Vera Kelly is through an earlier novel, she certainly is not a mystery in Rosalie Knecht’s novel titled, Vera Kelly Is Not a Mystery. Vera is the kind of private investigator and human being who you want on your side. For a lost boy named Felix, Vera is just the right person to be on his side. After being asked by an old couple to find this missing boy, Vera goes to great lengths in her search, including taking a job at a home for boys, and going to the Dominican Republic to find his parents and their family home. Vera’s own life intrudes along the way, adding depth to the character and to the plot momentum. I was thoroughly entertained by the story and the writing. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Vera Kelly Is Not a Mystery from


Sisterhood. Many novels help readers answer the question: how to we live, now? For Antonia Vega, the protagonist of Julia Alvarez’ novel titled, Afterlife, this involves finding moorings again, following her retirement from teaching college and the sudden death of her husband, Sam, the beloved physician in their Vermont town. Life has a way of injecting our “now” with the next way to live. One of Antonia’s three sisters has disappeared, so the siblings join together to find her. Antonia also provides refuge for a pregnant undocumented teenager. Alvarez leads readers into lives that are connected to one another as members of the same human family, and our sense of belonging relates to those closest to us and all the members of our human family. Whatever has brought us to this time in our lives gives us the courage and wisdom to do the next thing. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Afterlife from

The Empty Bed

Twists. The twisting and thrilling action in Nina Sadowsky’s novel titled, The Empty Bed, starts on the first few pages and never lets up. We meet Eva and Peter in Hong Kong where they have come from London to celebrate their wedding anniversary. When Peter wakes up the morning after their arrival, Eva is missing. As we learn more, we begin to wonder about both Peter and Eva. Peter asks his London boss, Forrest “Holly” Holcomb, for help finding Eva, so Holly calls his former lover, Catherine, who runs the Burial Society, a group that hides people from evildoers. Catherine dispatches two agents to Hong Kong while she heads to Mexico City to protect others. Sadowsky keeps weaving a web of intrigue, tosses a few red herrings, and keeps us wanting to find out more. Fans of suspense thrillers are those most likely to enjoy this novel and the others in the Burial Society series. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Empty Bed from

A Burning

Aspirations. Three central characters in Megha Majundar’s debut novel titled, A Burning, have aspirations that they hope will be met. Set in contemporary India, the novel presents three points of view which combine to help readers absorb the complexity of their lives. Javin is a Muslim woman who has been imprisoned falsely for a terrorist attack. PT Sir was Javin’s teacher whose state in life has been ascending because of what he has done for a politician. Lovely is an outcast who wants to be a movie star, and she can provide the alibi to release Javin. Majundar pulls readers into issues of justice, fate, corruption and desire while using beautiful prose and exhibiting deep insight into human nature. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase A Burning from

If I Had Your Face

Image. Frances Cha’s debut novel is titled, If I Had Your Face, and features four young women in Seoul struggling to find their place in the world. Cha helps us understand the choices faced by women in Korea and how image can be something with which one is never satisfied. Readers can identify with the well-drawn characters and can feel the power of friendship and love that leads them through difficulties. Gender inequity in South Korea is portrayed with raw and unblinking imagery and stories. Economic inequality adds to the struggle for these characters both in terms of the cost of looking one’s best and in being able to raise a child. Some book clubs will find this debut novel will open broad conversations about contemporary issues. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase If I Had Your Face from

Monday, July 6, 2020

These Women

Voices. Amid the chaos involved with the terror of a serial killer, we hear the voices of a cast of women who know what must be learned, if only someone will listen to them. In her novel titled, These Women, Ivy Pochoda gives five key women clear voices, and adds to the murder mystery tension by having the murderer be the one individual paying attention to the women. The Los Angeles backdrop for this story becomes vivid, and readers will become invested in each of the women that Pochoda presents. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase These Women from

The Heart Is a Full-Wild Beast

Stories. The late John L’Heureux didn’t seem to spend a lot of time thinking about the small questions in life. Instead, in his collection of stories titled, The Heart Is a Full-Wild Beast, readers find thoughtful examination of those moments that change lives. This collection is packed with joy, love, humor and celebrates the range of human behavior that brings the world pleasure. No topic seems to be off limits, as L’Heureux finds the love or the connection or the reasons to live and to carry on. I’ll miss the ways in which this talented writer helped me and other readers wrestle with what life throws us. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Heart Is a Full-Wild Beast from

Five Days: The Fiery Reckoning of an American City

Changemakers. Robin Hood Foundation CEO Wes Moore pulls readers of his book titled, Five Days: The Fiery Reckoning of an American City, into the long weekend of Freddie Gray’s death in Baltimore in April 2015. We learn about the city of Baltimore, the root sources of discontent that led to the violence following Gray’s death, and the hopeful signs of a better future. We are introduced to changemakers who we’ll root for and support as they try to make Baltimore a better place. This is one more book that helps privileged white men like me understand better what Black Lives Matter is about, to commit to supporting those trying to effect lasting impact, and to change what I can to make things better. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Five Days from

The End of October

Pathogens. If living through a real pandemic makes you hungry to read about a fictional one, be sure to read Lawrence Wright’s novel titled, The End of October. I had to keep reminding myself that Wright wrote this novel well before anyone knew about covid-19 because he gets so much of our contemporary experience right. That said, we read fiction for other reasons. Protagonist Dr. Henry Parsons provides one of those reasons. Wright enfleshed this flawed hero with all the human qualities that make us fascinated by other people. This skilled epidemiologist does so much right, makes some big mistakes, and tries to move along, just like us. This thrilling novel provides lots of suspense and a cast of interesting characters, full of good and malice, focused often on the wrong things. Pathogens and nature are powerful forces, as we’re learning, and our human inclinations are not always focused on doing what’s best for ourselves and for others. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase The End of October from

The Warsaw Protocol

Blackmail. Leave it to protagonist Cotton Malone to be in the right place at the right time. Or is it the wrong place at the right time? In the fifteenth installment of the Malone series by Steve Berry, a novel titled, The Warsaw Protocol, Cotton happens to be present for the theft of a sacred object, so he leaps into the fray to catch the thieves and recover the object. Almost immediately, Stephanie Nelle invites him back for a short-term job. What follows is an adventurous plot that involves securing items that are planned to be used to blackmail the president of Poland. Politics, villains, castles and a salt mine are all in the mix for readers of this entertaining action novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Warsaw Protocol from

Girl, Woman, Other

Ensemble. I enjoy a novel that provides insight into the essence of human behavior especially through the development of a single complex and interesting character. In her superb novel titled, Girl, Woman, Other, Bernardine Evaristo gives us a dozen such characters. Through this chorus readers join a celebration of humanity in a wide range of ages and diversity of identity. Along the way, their stories become part of our stories, and we acknowledge aspects of shared history and experience. I enjoyed every minute I spent in the company of these fascinating characters and this talented writer. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase Girl Woman Other from


Resilience. There are twenty short stories in the collection by Lidia Yuknavitch titled, Verge. The characters in these stories live on the margins. In lives that are battered from so many sources, there is truth and beauty if one looks in the right places, and an untraveled path out of a current setback can be found. Yuknavitch write prose that sings in celebration of the resilience of the characters she creates. Rating: Three-star (It’s ok) Click here to purchase Verge from

The Black Cathedral

Cienfuegos. Lots of narrators of Marcia Gala’s novel, The Black Cathedral, combine their voices to create a din that describes life in Cienfuegos, Cuba. Readers are treated or subjected to a barrage of fragments that reinforce a poor quality of life and the unrealistic hope that life will change after a new cathedral is built. The people in the town are caught up in violence and selfishness. After finishing the novel, many readers like me may scratch our heads about this novel but concur that we just read an indictment of life in modern Cuba delivered by a rousing chorus of voices. Rating: Three-star (It’s ok) Click here to purchase The Black Cathedral from

The Death of Jesus

Orphan. I’m undecided whether or not to recommend that you must read J.M. Coetzee’s two novels titled The Childhood of Jesus and The Schooldays of Jesus before you read the third novel, The Death of Jesus. Normally, reading a series in sequence leads to greater understanding. For these three novels, there’s no understanding, only lots of questions. The main question that David, the now ten-year-old protagonist, asks in this novel is: Why am I here? While Simon and Inez act as if they are his parents, he is an orphan, as we all are, since at some time we are all alone in the world with our unanswered questions about the meaning of life. I’ve read all three novels, and feel unsettled, which is probably the best outcome achievable from these unusual and finely written novels. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Death of Jesus from

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes

Origin. Fans of the Hunger Games trilogy are those readers most likely to enjoy Suzanne Collins’ origin story of Coriolanus Snow in a novel titled, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes. We meet eighteen-year-old Snow at the 10th Hunger Games, where he and other students are selected as mentors to the tributes. Snow is assigned to a female tribute from District 12 and their chance of winning seems remote. Collins presents readers with an immature Coriolanus and there are times when we think he might choose to do good. To the satisfaction of fans, we see the character traits of the villainous adult Snow appear in one form or another at every pivot in this selection from his formative years. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes from