Tuesday, October 27, 2020
Fire. The novel by Alex George titled, The Paris Hours, reveals the lives of four characters over the course of one day in Paris in 1927. George moves from one character to another as the day progresses, using each narrative turn to fill in the backstory for these people, primarily through the use of memory. We learn of love, loss, secrets, longing and connection. George pulls reluctant readers along as he adds colorful and well-known people living in that time and place, including Ernest Hemingway, Marcel Proust, Gertrude Stein, and Josephine Baker. A motif involving fire connects the four individuals. Fans of fine writing and intricate plotting are those readers most likely to enjoy this novel, as will those who love both Paris and this time period. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase The Paris Hours from amazon.com.
Exchange. While some readers may be skeptical of the premise of Beth O’Leary’s novel titled, The Switch, it won’t take long to overcome that and luxuriate in the lives of two women named Eileen Cotton. Younger Eileen Cotton (Leena) works nonstop in London as she grieves the death of her sister, Carla, who died of cancer recently. Leena’s grandmother, Eileen Cotton, the grandmother, faces life changes at age 80, sharing grief at Carla’s death, and adrift following her husband’s departure for another woman. After Leena’s boss demands that she take a two month holiday from work, grandmother and granddaughter decide to switch places, with Leena leaving her flat in London to live in her grandmother’s rural home, and Eileen looking for a chance to love again in the big city. This is a heartwarming story that will satisfy many readers and enliven any book club’s discussion about life’s possibilities at any age. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Switch from amazon.com.
Roommates. Naoise Dolan’s debut novel, Exciting Times, explores contemporary love and relationships. Protagonist Ava has arrived in Hong Kong from Dublin to teach English to privileged children. Before long, a banker named Julian begins a romantic relationship with Ava that is fraught with challenges. While Julian works abroad, Ava meets Edith, a lawyer, and they explore a relationship. Before long, the three characters are roommates trying to sort out what’s next. Dolan finds ways to lead readers to care about what happens to these characters, and to think about modern love and the kinds of personal and financial transactions that can transform our lives. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Exciting Times from amazon.com.
Versions. Jeff VanderMeer, in his novel titled, Dead Astronauts, continues a riff that he began in his science fiction novel titled, Borne, describing ways in which ruthlessness leads to trying and trying again as multiple versions of life forms attempt progress, whatever that means. There are villains and rebels on these pages, and a creepy world that no matter how parts are remade remains a horror. Fans of literary science fiction are those readers most likely to enjoy this strange and imaginative novel. Rating: Three-star (It’s ok) Click here to purchase Dead Astronauts from amazon.com.
Siblings. Love and competition are often intertwined in sibling relationships. In her novel titled, Sisters, Daisy Johnson haunts readers with the lives of July and September as they face trauma and abuse. Johnson’s prose keeps readers unsettled as she spills out her story in dribs and drabs, building to a surprising twist at the end. On the journey from beginning to end, Johnson’s prose is beguiling and will be appreciated by those readers who enjoy finely written literary fiction and can tolerate meandering. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Sisters from amazon.com.
Atmospheric. The ingredients in Lucy Foley’s crime thriller titled, The Guest List, seem familiar: a remote island, multiple characters with reasons to kill, a storm and opportunity. The cast of unlikeable characters allows for an abundance of suspects after the murder takes place. Foley leaves a trail of clues for observant readers as different characters relate their version of events, building to a climax that for some readers will be obvious, and for others a total twist and surprise. Since we can’t travel to a remote location off the coast of Ireland, we can visit in novels like this one, and while social distancing can give us some delight in that we are not in the company of the guests at the wedding that drew them together. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Guest List from amazon.com.
Crowe. The two words in the titled of Tom Cooper’s novel titled, Florida Man, tell you what this book is all about. First is the place, Florida, more specifically Emerald Island, in the central swampy part of the state. Second, a man, protagonist Reed Crowe, who we see from the 1960s to the present, but mostly in the 1980s. Supporting the setting are the businesses Crowe has on Emerald Island: a motel and an attraction featuring amusement and animals. A broader cast of characters are all well described, bringing humor, love and terror in various doses. All of the characters orbit around Crowe, and he is the Florida man in all its eccentric magnificence for those readers who enjoy imaginative character-based fiction. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Florida Man from amazon.com.
Hubris. Having declined interviews with Bob Woodward for his 1998 book, Fear, Donald Trump decided to make himself available to the journalist for a new book titled, Rage. Full of blinding hubris, Trump must have assumed that he could talk his way through whatever Woodward asked and ensure that a favorable view of the American President would follow in the book, unlike the earlier book which made the President look bad. Instead, what we get from Woodward are Trump’s own rambling, disconnected and unhinged words as recorded in seventeen on the record interviews. On topics including the pandemic, racial unrest and international relations, we revisit things we think we know, and learn a little more about the reality behind the statements and stories. We observe denial, combat, bluster and occasional revelations of the difference between what the President knew and what he told the rest of us. In addition to the Trump meetings, Woodward spent hundreds of hours interviewing witnesses to the events related along with their notes, emails, diaries and other documents. He also read twenty-five letters from Kim Jong Un that reveal how manipulation was used to soften up Trump in his dealings with North Korea. Readers interested in public affairs and politics are those most likely to enjoy this enlightening book. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase Rage from amazon.com.
Doggerel. President Franklin Roosevelt wanted to be sure that artists were employed during the Depression because he knew that if left adrift their skills could do damage. In his second book of political satire in verse and line drawings, sheltering-at-home actor John Lithgow displays again his wit as he turns his attention to the despotic tendencies of President Trump. While reading doggerel may not suit a vast audience, I found his book titled, Trumpty Dumpty Wanted a Crown: Verses for a Despotic Age, to be a quick read and a biting indictment of some of the recent highlights (or lowlights) of the Trump administration. Trump supporters will experience raised blood pressure and some fury if they read this book. Readers who can’t wait for the end of the Trump regime may laugh and cry at the sharp wit in the poems and images in this book. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Trumpty Dumpty Wanted a Crown from amazon.com.
Quest. While I am not the target demographic for a middle school science fiction novel (although some of my grandchildren are), I find that there are times when any adult can be very satisfied by reading a book in this genre. I thoroughly enjoyed Yoon Ha Lee’s novel titled, Dragon Pearl, in which thirteen-year old protagonist Min goes on a quest to find out why her older brother uncharacteristically left his Space Forces battle cruiser. There’s adventure on these pages, ghosts, lots of action and reinforcement of family values. Min uses fox magic and deceit at many turns to complete her quest. Consider reading this fun story as a distraction from whatever place may be calling for your escape. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Dragon Pearl from amazon.com.
Monday, October 19, 2020
Prequel. Fans of Ken Follett’s Kingsbridge series are those readers most likely to enjoy his new novel, a prequel titled, The Evening and the Morning. This is an origin story, in a familiar place where there isn’t a bridge until close to the end of the novel. As usual with this series, there’s a great cast of interesting and complex characters, and loads of details about everyday life during this time period (starting in 997 AD). There’s a builder, a priest and strong women, and every minute a reader spends in their world provides great entertainment. If you’re looking for a big book to settle into, consider this one. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase The Evening and the Morning from amazon.com.
Narrators. Nicola Maye Goldberg structures her novel titled, Nothing Can Hurt You, as different views from characters, each impacted by a single event. After we listen to another’s point of view, can our perspective change? What keeps us bound to some life event and how is it that we can become so intensely focused on a single thing? Can we appreciate that some individuals closer to the event that us can move on? The multiple narrators in this novel provide their points of view in Goldberg’s finely written prose. What we make of each of them and of ourselves when we finish the novel is up to us. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Nothing Can Hurt You from amazon.com.
Candid. It won’t take readers very long to read the memoir by Chasten Buttigieg titled, I Have Something to Tell You. He writes about his life with candor, humor, and an absence of embarrassment about his naivete and his struggles. There’s kindness and warmth in every chapter, and a cheerful and endearing embrace of the adventures so far in his unexpected life. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase I Have Something to Tell You from amazon.com.
Health. I can think of no better time to read a reflection on the fragility of health. Timothy Snyder’s short book titled, Our Malady: Lessons in Liberty from a Hospital Diary, describes the illness he experienced in December 2019 (spoiler: not coronavirus), and how important health is in the context of all our civil liberties, a topic about which the author is an expert. This book makes a compelling case for universal health care being a basic human right and how such a system will help mend some places in which our society has torn apart. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Our Malady from amazon.com.
Bridge. No matter how well we think we know another person, there is always more to their story. In his novel titled, Anxious People, Fredrik Bachman introduces readers to a cast of characters who come together in both planned and unexpected ways and end up becoming a bridge for others to cross from one way of being to another. A physical bridge in the novel also provides a common thread to pull the story together. Most readers will laugh along with these interesting and compelling characters, and empathize with the anxiety that we share in common as we face what the world throws at us. If you’re looking to read a novel that will help you feel good, consider reading this one. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Anxious People from amazon.com.
Stratford. Readers who enjoy historical fiction are those most likely to enjoy Maggie O’Farrell’s novel titled, Hamnet, based on the lives of William Shakespeare and Anne Hathaway in Stratford, England. The story focuses on Agnes (Anne) and the love and loss that define her life. O’Farrell’s prose helps place us in the time and place and in the context of the plague. With great skill, O’Farrell draws us into a portrait of marriage in the sixteenth century, and the ways in which an artist acquires inspiration to express in one’s work the most important things in life. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Hamnet from amazon.com.
Audience. I’ve been a fan of Christopher Buckley’s satire for many years, so I was a key part of the target audience for his book titled, Make Russia Great Again. For many people in 2020, laughter has become a rare commodity. Political partisans are fighting hard this presidential election year, and some readers will perceive this book as another form of anti-Trump propaganda. For those readers who appreciate political satire and are open to laughter even about figures they support, this book is packed with wit and perfectly aimed plausible takes on contemporary American politics. I was entertained once again by this display of Buckley’s humor. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Make Russia Great Again from amazon.com.
Interior. Fans of finely written prose are those most likely to enjoy Margot Livesey’s novel titled, The Boy in the Field. Each character’s depth and interior life becomes revealed over the course of a well-structured plot. Three siblings are coming of age and observing their parents and others in new ways. Even the dog’s interior life plays a part as the story progresses. The siblings are finding their places in the world and in relationships. Livesey draws us into these lives and we find ourselves caring about them deeply. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Boy in the Field from amazon.com.
Princesses. John Banville, writing as Benjamin Black, imagines young Princess Elizabeth and her sister, Princess Margaret, being sent from London to rural Ireland in 1940 to escape the bombing. In his novel titled, The Secret Guests, Black helps readers see aspects of the personalities of Elizabeth and Margaret as children that resonate with their later lives. The action is set in Clonmillis Hall, the estate of the Duke of Edenmore, who could use funds to keep up the estate which has seen better days. The girls are in the care of a secret agent, Miss Celia Nashe, and an Irish detective. There’s an interesting cast of characters, some drama and tension, and the kind of hijinks and peril that should have prevented such a scheme as hiding the princesses from ever taking place. They may have been safer under the bombing than in Ireland. I think Banville enjoyed writing about something he thinks is plausible, and readers who enjoy imaginative historical fiction may delight in spending time with his imagination. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Secret Guests from amazon.com.
Motivation. Contentment and satisfaction may not help us achieve what we want in life, according to Andreas Elpidorou in his book titled, Propelled: How Boredom, Frustration, and Anticipation Lead Us to the Good Life. Instead, discontent is what leads us toward progress. After you read this book, you’ll be tempted to reply to someone who tells you they’re frustrated or bored with the response, “good.” You may have to give them a copy of the book to explain the reason you said that. Rating: Three-star (It’s ok) Click here to purchase Propelled from amazon.com.
Monday, October 12, 2020
Power. Hank Green concludes a story of technology, power and submission that he began in his debut novel, An Absolutely Remarkable Thing, with his novel titled, A Beautifully Foolish Endeavor. The Carls who appeared as robots in the first novel have disappeared, and Green explores the perspectives of multiple recurring characters as they adjust to the new world order and the ways in which power has been concentrated. Fans of the first novel are those readers most likely to enjoy the continuation of this engaging and thought-provoking story. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase A Beautifully Foolish Endeavor from amazon.com.
Destiny. Fiction can help readers think about the different ways in which society could be organized and the ways in which individuals respond to social constraints. In her novel titled, Blue Ticket, Sophie Mackintosh describes a world in which motherhood is determined at the time of menarche when a young woman goes to a machine that spits out either a white ticket to set her on the path toward motherhood or a blue ticket that leads her to the insertion of permanent birth control. Protagonist Calla has been given a blue ticket, and the novel explores the ways in which she responds to this destiny. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Blue Ticket from amazon.com.
Lost. Is a person who is lost himself capable of finding someone else who is lost? In his debut novel titled, The Churchgoer, Patrick Coleman gives readers fine writing, intriguing and unpleasant characters, twisting plot lines, and insights into our human condition. The protagonist and narrator, Mark Haines, is a surfer who had been a youth pastor and has reached a point in his life where he feels he has failed at everything. Cindy is a young drifter, who has gone missing, and Mark turns detective as he tries to find her. The California setting and noir feel invoke Raymond Chandler in some ways alongside religious fervor and laidback surfside life. Coleman deploys great skill in crafting these characters and placing tension and insight in just the right ways to satisfy many readers. An occasional perfectly crafted sentence will whack you on the head with something profound. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Churchgoer from amazon.com.
Portraits. I’ve read a lot of Walter Mosley’s novels, and I consistently enjoy his fine writing and the ways in which his characters are complex, interesting, and exhibit human behavior that’s always recognizable. In a collection of seventeen short stories titled, The Awkward Black Man, Mosley exhibits his talent at character portraits with great skill and efficiency. Within the constraints of the short story structure, Mosley presents vulnerability, struggles, awkwardness in the world and relationships, and strength in moving ahead. There are terrific characters presented in these stories, and many readers will see themselves and others presented with insight and sensitivity by the fine writing of this talented author. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase The Awkward Black Man from amazon.com.
Puzzles. Fans of mysteries are those readers who will love Alex Pavesi’s novel titled, The Eighth Detective. The setup is that a mathematician has determined that there are seven ways that a mystery can work, and he wrote seven stories to prove his thesis. An editor visits him on a remote island, and she plays our role: reading the stories to solve the puzzles. She provides an exciting twist to it all, showing inconsistencies and providing a puzzle of her own to delight readers. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Eighth Detective from amazon.com.
Nurture. The ground in which things grow plays a big role in how something thrives or withers. For a family, that ground is a neighborhood, community or town. In his book titled, How to Be a Family: The Year I Dragged My Kids Around the World to Find a New Way to Be Together, Dan Kois describes the year he, his wife, and their two daughters spent living in four different places. Packed with candor and humor, Kois mines the ups and downs of family dynamics at play as they depart their home in Arlington, Virginia to spend three-month stints in New Zealand, Holland, Costa Rica and Hays, Kansas. The culture in each place supports the ways in which families live and interact with neighbors. If you’ve ever thought about packing up and living in a place different from what’s been familiar, you’re likely to find this book instructive and interesting. General readers can enjoy the vicarious pleasure and pain of how Kois and his family learned what nurture looks like in different places. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase How To Be a Family from amazon.com.
Momentum. Readers who enjoy twentieth century history meant for a general audience will enjoy Chris Wallace and Mitch Weiss’s book titled, Countdown 1945: The Extraordinary Story of the Atomic Bomb and the 116 Days That Changed the World. There’s momentum and drama in this book that is structured starting four months before the atomic bombs were released on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I learned more about Truman’s decision-making process after reading this book, and the stories of the pilots and others made the account personal. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Countdown 1945 from amazon.com.
Complications. Readers who enjoy Alexander McCall Smith’s Isabel Dalhousie series will love the 13th installment, a novel titled, The Geometry of Holding Hands. I kept waiting to understand the title, and it came at the very end of the book, so be patient. As always, there are ethical concerns that philosopher Isabel grapples with, and her musician husband, Jamie, offers love and clarity to all the complications that develop in this novel. Smith has the ability to present readers with domestic situations, add conflict and complexity, and leave us very satisfied with human nature by the end of the book. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Geometry of Holding Hands from amazon.com.
Memories. What triggers your memories? The unnamed protagonist of Eimear McBride’s novel titled, Strange Hotel, launches into a stream of consciousness recollection of her memories after she returns to a hotel room she had stayed in years earlier. Fasten your seat belt, and stick with the recitation of places, things and people that flow past rapidly, as happens whenever our memories are triggered. The journey with this novel won’t take long, it will often be strange, and by the last page one reaction might be like mine: that was really something. I’m just not sure what. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Strange Hotel from amazon.com.
Heritage. We stand on the shoulders of the ancestors who came before us, many of whom we have never met, and whose stories we don’t know. Three strong black women are connected in Margaret Wilkerson Sexton’s novel titled, The Revisioners. The first-person voices alternate from 2017 (Ava) to 1924 (Josephine) to 1855 (Josephine as a child) and back again. The characters during all the time periods face danger, react quickly, and plan for a better future. Sexton lets these women talk, and our job as readers is to listen to these mothers and understand heritage and act today based on what we learn from their strength and perseverance. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Revisioners from amazon.com.