Tuesday, August 25, 2020


Vibrant. It’s time to treat your addled covid brain with six fresh and vibrant essays by Zadie Smith in a collection titled, Intimations. Artists of all sorts help us make sense of the world. In these finely written essays, Smith uses all her artistic writing skill to help us think about this unusual time. I felt communal empathy in her words, and kindness about our current predicament in respect to the pandemic, racism and immigration. We’ve all asked ourselves scores of questions in 2020, and in these essays, Smith reveals the questions she has asked herself and how she is thinking about contemporary life.


Rating: Five-star (I love it)

Click here to purchase Intimations from amazon.com.


You Never Forget Your First: A Biography of George Washington

Lively. If reading about dead people from earlier centuries isn’t high on your list of priorities, try picking up a copy of Alexis Coe’s lively and funny book titled, You Never Forget Your First: A Biography of George Washington, and learn that reading about dead people can be entertaining. With playful wit, Coe dispenses with the many myths about Washington, and presents a different view of the person behind the heroic marble façade. She carefully curates those aspects of his life that bring the man down to earth from a remote pedestal. This breezy and cheeky book entertained me thoroughly.


Rating: Four-star (I like it)

Click here to purchase You Never Forget Your First from amazon.com.

The Order

Conspiracy. For the twentieth installment of his Gabriel Allon series, Daniel Silva sends the Israeli spy back to a place where Gabriel made close friends in high places in the past, Vatican City. In the novel titled, The Order, Gabriel is asked by the late pope’s private secretary to come to Rome to investigate a conspiracy involving the Holy See. A group called the Order of St. Helena with much support from the European right may be engaged in a conspiracy to rig the election of the next pope. Fans of this series are those readers most likely to enjoy this latest installment featuring a complex and interesting protagonist who always seems to choose whatever it takes to do the right thing.


Rating: Four-star (I like it)

Click here to purchase The Order from amazon.com.


My Life as a Villainess

Verve. Just the word “villainess” in the title gives readers a taste of the verve with which Laura Lippman writes in her collection of essays titled, My Life as a Villainess. I’ve read her fiction for years, especially her Tess Monaghan crime series set in Baltimore. I thoroughly enjoyed the wit and enthusiasm of her non-fiction in these essays. Sometimes, she’s relating the experience of Everywoman in recent decades. Other times, she offers a glimpse into her own life in ways that will entertain most readers. We get to see among other topics, some of her childhood, life in school, finding work as a journalist, and her experience being an older mother. Readers who enjoy a wry take on our crazy world, good writing, and some real verve, should consider reading these essays.


Rating: Four-star (I like it)

Click here to purchase My Life As a Villainess from amazon.com.



Hard Cash Valley

Loss. Brian Panowich returns to Bull Mountain and McFalls County for the third time in a novel titled, Hard Cash Valley. Squeamish readers should be cautious when approaching this thriller, since the violence includes both murder and torture. Protagonist Dane Kirby has suffered a lot of loss during his life in McFalls County. His boss has assigned him to work with the FBI on a brutal murder in another state, but the trail leads him back home to a world of chickens bred for fighting, criminal treachery and the hunt for a boy on the autism spectrum. The pace of the novel is rapid, and Panowich builds heavy layers of complexity onto each main character to intensify the stakes and accelerate the action. Fans of crime fiction with a stomach for gore are those readers most likely to enjoy this novel. Through all the loss, there is also love, and that helps point Kirby and other characters in the direction of redemption and recovery. Meanwhile, the bad guys face justice to the satisfaction of readers who have put up with a lot from these criminals.


Rating: Four-star (I like it)

Click here to purchase Hard Cash Valley from amazon.com.



The Beauty in Breaking

Healing. I can think of no better time than now to read some life lessons from an emergency room physician. In her memoir titled, The Beauty in Breaking, Michele Harper blends patient and personal stories in ways that will engage and encourage most readers. Harper helps us pay attention to those places where each of us is broken in one way or another and offers us a path toward healing. We can learn about better ways to live in many ways, and this book will provide comfort to anyone engaged in a struggle and looking for a voice of experience to find a way to find healing.


Rating: Four-star (I like it)

Click here to purchase The Beauty in Breaking from amazon.com.


The Divided States of America: Why Federalism Doesn't Work

Inequality. Timing can be everything when it comes to non-fiction. The uneven responses among different cities and states to the novel coronavirus provide one more example of the main points Donald F. Kettl makes in his book titled, The Divided States of America: Why Federalism Doesn't Work. The sharing of power between the national government and individual states began as a creative compromise to create the United States of America. Kettl describes how that compromise built inequality into the balance, especially because of slavery. In this finely written book, Kettl argues that it is past time to reform our political system, and he offers some alternative solutions to what he sees as the problems of the current system. Where one lives makes the world of difference when it comes to education, health care, infrastructure and the risk of dying from a virus that some political leaders have not taken seriously. Any reader interested in public affairs should read this thoughtful book.


Rating: Four-star (I like it)

Click here to purchase The Divided States of America from amazon.com.



The Pull of the Stars

Pandemic. Consider taking a busman’s holiday from the current pandemic to Emma Donoghue’s finely written book set during the Great Flu of 1918, a novel set in Dublin and titled, The Pull of the Stars. As in her earlier novels, Donoghue doesn’t need a lot of landscape in which to set her dramatic action: much of this novel is set in a hospital room over the course of three days. I was delighted by the point of view from narrator and protagonist Julia Power, a nurse. Donoghue’s characters are deeply developed and reveal the depth of human nature and behavior. The prose is finely written, and the novel should appeal to any reader who enjoys the power of a well-told story and the selection of just the right words to convey it with love, care and precision.


Rating: Five-star (I love it)

Click here to purchase The Pull of the Stars from amazon.com.



Narrative Economics: How Stories Go Viral and Drive Major Economic Events

Contagion. The novel coronavirus has gotten many of us to think about the concept of herd immunity. In his book titled, Narrative Economics: How Stories Go Viral and Drive Major Economic Events, Nobel Prize winning economist Robert J. Shiller offers an adjacent theory: that the spread of stories has a powerful role in economic behavior. I know a CEO who will often frame a decision-making conversation in terms of what one would have to believe for the outcome to be probable. The beliefs of the herd can spread, and like lemmings, we can follow others into economic behavior that builds momentum from beliefs that are not necessarily supported by data. Shiller’s writing for general audiences is always clear and cogent. Readers interested in business, finance and economics will find something to think about after reading this book.


Rating: Four-star (I like it)

Click here to purchase Narrative Economics from amazon.com.


Shuggie Bain

 Alcoholic. Douglas Stuart’s debut novel titled, Shuggie Bain, packs a wallop. Set in Glasgow, the novel offers a detailed exploration of the relationship between an alcoholic mother, Agnes Bain, and her son, Shuggie. Any reader who has lived in a household where alcohol was a problem will recognize Stuart’s insight into family dynamics and what happens when children have to assume responsibilities far beyond what’s age appropriate for them. Stuart excels at character development in this novel, and through multiple detailed descriptions of dysfunctional domestic life readers can share just a small bit of what it is like to live in a house with an alcoholic adult. Stuart seems to keep pounding away at readers with one sad episode after another that can make us weary. That’s part of the impressive power of this book: the text itself recreates the repetitive experiences of this family’s life. I highly recommend this novel to those readers who appreciate finely written literary fiction and those who find depth and insight from descriptions of domestic life, whether the same as what we’ve known ourselves or completely different.


Rating: Five-star (I love it)

Click here to purchase Shuggie Bain from amazon.com.



Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Lost Hills

 Solo. Detective Eve Ronin gets the job done, even if she has to go solo to do it. Lee Goldberg’s novel titled, Lost Hills, entertains readers with a “feel like you’re there” police procedural set in Los Angeles. I consider this book as a one-hour television drama for readers. The action moves at a fast clip and you don’t have to think too much as the author entertains you. I liked the characters, especially Eve, and was entertained with enough twists to keep my interest to the end.


Rating: Four-star (I like it)

Click here to purchase Lost Hills from amazon.com.



Mrs. Mohr Goes Missing

 Vocation. The best murder mysteries in the Agatha Christie tradition have a protagonist detective that’s beloved by readers. Maryla Szmiczkowa provides one named Zofia Turbotyńska in a novel titled, Mrs. Mohr Goes Missing. Zofie is a bored socialite in Cracow whose current task is a fundraiser for a local care home and the nuns who operate it. After a resident is found dead, Zofia leaves her boredom behind and comes to life as a passionate detective. She excels at this vocation, to the pleasure of readers like me who are entertained by this genre. Zofia has the wit and flair of some of the greatest fictional detectives who precede her, and I was delighted to stumble on this novel and look forward to Zofia’s next case.


Rating: Four-star (I like it)

Click here to purchase Mrs Mohr Goes Missing from amazon.com.



Shakespeare for Squirrels

 Dream. The latest romp with Shakespeare and Christopher Moore is a novel titled, Shakespeare for Squirrels, the author’s version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The more you know Shakespeare, the funnier this novel is, and the squirrels are the icing on the cake. Characters from Moore’s earlier Shakespearean ventures are reprised to the satisfaction of readers of the previous two novels in this set. If you liked Pocket in the earlier novels, you’ll love him in this one as he works his magic. Readers looking for a relaxing diversion are those most likely to enjoy this novel.


Rating: Four-star (I like it)

Click here to purchase Shakespeare for Squirrels from amazon.com.



 Secrets. My best advice to readers of Tracy O’Neill’s novel titled, Quotients, is to give yourself over to whatever it is she is doing and don’t worry too much about what’s going on. Enjoy the precise sentences without worrying too much about why this one follows that one. By the end, you will have watched a work of art being assembled and can close the book with impressions about contemporary life, about the power of secrets, about love and family, and about what it takes to make one’s way in this world. At least that’s what I think I read about.


Rating: Three-star (It’s ok)

Click here to purchase Quotients from amazon.com.



The Last Trial

 Finale. It won’t surprise fans of Scott Turow’s fiction that the latest novel titled, The Last Trial, is set in Kindle County, and recurring character Sandy Stern is back for what is positioned as his last trial. At age eighty-five, Sandy is not in prime physical condition, but he knows how to operate in the courtroom, and the best parts of this novel show Sandy weaving his magic before a jury. The client is a friend, and the evidence against him is formidable. Turow shares his insights into our human condition and the legal system in ways that are empathetic about frailty and the humanity woven into the system. I enjoyed every page of this novel, and every minute spent with Turow and Sandy Stern.


Rating: Four-star (I like it)

Click here to purchase The Last Trial from amazon.com.

Home Before Dark

 Baneberry. I find that a creepy novel with strange happenings in an old house provides just the right dose of chills to break the heat of summer. In Riley Sager’s novel titled, Home Before Dark, the house is Baneberry Hall, and stuff that happened there in the past and present can give slowly paced chills to readers. Protagonist Maggie Holt lived in the house briefly when she was a child. After her father’s death twenty-five years later, she inherits Baneberry Hall which she didn’t know her father still owned. He profited from a book about their brief time in the house, and that story within a story breaks the pace of this novel by alternating the past and present events in the house. There are just enough twists to satisfy most readers, and for those of us who live in old houses, we might do one more check tonight before heading to bed.


Rating: Four-star (I like it)

Click here to purchase Home Before Dark from amazon.com.



Sex and Vanity

 Formula. Kevin Kwan offers fans another comic novel featuring crazy rich people and their decadent lives. There’s a romance at the center of this novel titled, Sex and Vanity. While Kwan uses the formula about cultural clash and the behavior of some superrich people that has worked for him in prior novels, he also enhances the complexity of the main characters in this novel so that readers can feel some nuance which makes the comedy work even better.


Rating: Four-star (I like it)

Click here to purchase Sex and Vanity from amazon.com.



Hour of the Assassin

 Scapegoat. Be careful about what you eat and drink before and while reading Matthew Quirk’s novel titled, Hour of the Assassin. The violence and blood in the narrative can be off-putting, especially for delicate stomachs. Within the first few pages of the novel protagonist and former Secret Service agent Nick Averose realizes that he has been set up as the scapegoat for a murder he didn’t commit. Quirk keeps the action moving quickly as Nick uses all his skills to find out what’s going on and come out of his predicament alive. Fans of crime thrillers are those most likely to enjoy this novel.


Rating: Four-star (I like it)

Click here to purchase Hour of the Assassin from amazon.com.


The Vanishing Half


 Twins. Certain choices can define how our journey through life plays out. The twins in Brit Bennett’s novel titled, The Vanishing Half, choose different paths, and readers get to enjoy each sister’s life as the consequence of their difference choices. Sometimes we define ourselves, and other times we become identified by others as being a certain way. Sometimes a reinvention of identity can involve an erasure of the past to maintain the integrity of one’s new identity. Bennet explores the lives of identical twin sisters from the 1950s through the 1990s as one sister chooses to be identified as White while her sister allows herself to be identified as Black. Bennet encourages readers to immerse ourselves into these disparate lives, as she demands that we think about racial and gender identity with an open mind.


Rating: Five-star (I love it)

Click here to purchase The Vanishing Half from amazon.com.





 Silence. What makes you uncomfortable? The characters in Catherine Lacey’s novel titled, Pew, face what makes them uncomfortable, and Lacey’s fine writing leads readers toward understanding about human nature and life in modern society. When a family arrives in church one Sunday, they find someone stretched out in their pew. Their religious values lead them to reach out to help this person who seems to be homeless and seems to need help. All the inquiries of this person are met with silence, leaving the community discomfited. What do we call someone who does not disclose a name? They decide to call the person, “Pew.” Is Pew a man or a woman? After being taken for a medical exam, Pew refuses to remove clothing, leaving the gender classification unresolved. Skin color does not unequivocally establish the sorting classification that some in the community desire. Without the answers from Pew relating to identity, the community members are very uncomfortable. Lacey leads the narrative forward toward the community forgiveness ritual that pulls the story together in ways that may not satisfy all readers. Lacey’s prose is finely written, and this novel will appeal to those readers who appreciate thought-provoking literary fiction.


Rating: Five-star (I love it)

Click here to purchase Pew from amazon.com.

Wednesday, August 5, 2020


Madmen. Open up Jerome Charyn’s novel titled, Cesare, and be prepared to be caught up in life and death decisions in Berlin during the Second World War. A young naval cadet named Erik unwittingly saves the life of Admiral William Canaris, the head of German Military Intelligence. Set amid the horror of Nazi atrocities, the novel riffs on The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, making Erik the character of Cesare, and Canaris the mad doctor. Readers join in a nightmare situation where madness rules as they try to hide and protect Jews from the death camps. Erik’s loyalty to Canaris drives much of the action. Madness increases when the setting changes to Theresienstadt. Historical fiction can take us to places and times that can be perceived as better or worse than our current ones. While this novel is one that takes us to a much worse time and painful places, Charyn’s fine prose and imagery pull us along until we have had enough and must escape the madness and return to the relative sanity of our homes.


Rating: Four-star (I like it)

Click here to purchase Cesare from amazon.com.


Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Homeownership

Systemic. Readers of Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s book titled, Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Homeownership, will gain a deep understanding of systemic racism and its impact for Black American homeowners. Learn about how redlining worked, how people are exploited, and the long-term consequence of inequality in access to housing. There are human stories here alongside policy analysis. No matter how much you think you know about racial discrimination and predatory lending, this book will teach you a lot more.


Rating: Four-star (I like it)

Click here to purchase Race for Profit from amazon.com.



Front Row at the Trump Show

Observer. ABC News’ Chief White House correspondent Jonathan Karl has written a book titled, Front Row at the Trump Show. Karl’s contact with Trump goes back to New York City when the two men were in different roles. From that foundation, Karl offers what he has observed over decades about the relationship between Donald Trump and the media. For those readers interested in contemporary politics, Karl’s book offers a closely observed view of Trump and the White House. The anecdotes related in the book are interesting and the author’s perspective valuable in gaining insight about the current U.S. President.


Rating: Four-star (I like it)

Click here to purchase Front Row at the Trump Show from amazon.com.



From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the Twenty-First Century

Injustices. Through describing a long litany of hundreds of years of injustice, William A. Darity and A. Kirsten Mullen made a case for justice in their book titled, From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the Twenty-First Century. You probably have formed an opinion about reparations already. I guarantee that if you read this book, you are very likely to reconsider your position. The authors present their case with clarity and turn our eyes to aspects of the past that most of us would rather not see or acknowledge. Even if you still think reparations are impractical, have nothing to do with you, or are just a bad idea after reading this book, you will have spent a least a little time opening your mind to the possibility that reparations are the right thing to do and there are ways to do it right.


Rating: Five-star (I love it)

Click here to purchase From Here to Equality from amazon.com.

Friends and Strangers

 Privilege. The combination of finely written prose and psychological insight elevate J. Courtney Sullivan’s novel titled, Friends and Strangers, from domestic drama to literary fiction that encapsulates our current time and place. After two decades in New York City, protagonist and journalist Elisabeth moves with her husband and child to the rural town where his parents live. Many readers will identify with Elisabeth staying linked to her Brooklyn Moms group, while she steps slowly into the Moms group in her new community. Sullivan touches all the right nerves when it comes to motherhood. She also explores significant issues about privilege in this novel, and the ways in which insensitivity to the reality of privilege can inhibit the ability of one to see what other lives are like. Is the relationship between Elisabeth and her young babysitter friendship? After the babysitter finds a mentor in Elisabeth’s father-in-law, what does that mean for relationships all around? Fans of finely written literary fiction, especially mothers, are those readers most likely to enjoy this novel.


Rating: Five-star (I love it)

Click here to purchase Friends and Strangers from amazon.com.

Big Summer

Friend. Female friendships can be complicated things, and there’s plenty of complexity in Jennifer Weiner’s novel titled, Big Summer. Protagonist Daphne Berg is surprised when estranged high school friend Drue Cavanaugh contacts her six years after a dramatic breakup and invites her to be the maid of honor at a huge society wedding in outer Cape Cod. Daphne ends up feeling sorry for friendless Drue, so she agrees. What follows is a whirlwind of Instagram posts to plus-size Daphne’s followers, and to all the buzz around Drue and her fiancée. There are rom com elements in this novel that will make readers laugh, and enough seriousness to keep turning pages to the end. For those with covid-19 diminished attention, this novel is likely to be a fun and satisfying distraction. Rating: Three-star (It’s ok) Click here to purchase Big Summer from amazon.com.

The Missing American

Emma. Kwei Quartey has started a new crime fiction series featuring a young private detective in Accra, Ghana named Emma Djan. In this first novel titled, The Missing American, Emma finds herself sacked by the police department after she refused sexual advances from a senior officer and is then hired by a private investigator who values her detecting skills. Her first case involves, as the title indicates, a missing person. Quartey pulls readers into the world of successful internet scams as well as political corruption. Most readers will enjoy how all the threads of the plot come together and how easy it is to spend time with Emma and to enjoy the ways in which she gets the job done and achieves satisfaction. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Missing American from amazon.com.

Let them Eat Tweets: How the Right Rules in an Age of Extreme Inequality

Plutocrats. Spend a little while reading Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson’s book titled, Let Them Eat Tweets: How the Right Rules in an Age of Extreme Inequality, and you’ll begin to marvel about how a tiny minority of successful American plutocrats have gotten unpopular things done to their advantage. Hacker and Pierson describes the methods by which a few rich and powerful individuals have commandeered the levers of political power and built up unlikely coalitions to protect or enhance wealth and power for the few. This effort has been building over a long period of time and the current environment is the consequence of gradual changes and incremental steps. Readers interested in public policy and political science are those most likely to enjoy this engaging book. In case you haven’t noticed, this is a great time in America to be a plutocrat. The authors of this book explain why and how that happened. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Let Them Eat Tweets from amazon.com.

Dead Land

Power. The twentieth installment in the V.I. Warshawski series by Sara Paretsky is a novel titled, Dead Land. There’s a secret power play to develop the lakefront on Chicago’s South Side, and Vic’s goddaughter Bernie pulls her into the middle of the action. The familiar cast of characters enhance the novel for longtime fans, and links to Kansas and South America broaden the story beyond Chicago. When bodies start to pile up, Vic’s sense of urgency accelerates, especially when she herself becomes a target. I enjoyed every minute spent reading this entertaining novel and appreciated the continuing development of this familiar cast of characters alongside their engagement with new people. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Dead Land from amazon.com.

The Angels' Share

Madeira. The tenth wine country novel by Ellen Crosby is titled, The Angels’ Share. Protagonist Lucie Montgomery finds herself in the center of the key events in this installment. She discovers the body of her neighbor in his wine cellar shortly after he told her he wanted to buy bottles of Madeira dating back to Presidents Jefferson and Madison that her father had acquired. While Lucie was the executor of her father’s estate, she knew nothing about this Madeira. While she searches for the wine, her neighbor’s death was ruled a homicide and the killer poses a serious threat to Lucie. Fans of this series and crime fiction are those most likely to enjoy this novel. I finished the book with an interest in tracking down some old Madeira myself. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Angels’ Share from amazon.com.