Monday, December 21, 2020
Collaboration. Now more than ever, most of us can use a good laugh. One place to find humor is in the cartoon collection by Harry Bliss and Steve Martin titled, A Wealth of Pigeons. This book is a collaboration between a talented New Yorker cartoonist and a renowned humorist. The result of this effort led me to laugh a lot. There’s nothing more exposed than a single cartoon panel: it either delivers the goods or it flops. These panels hit far more than they miss, and I found the tonic on these pages to be a perfect elixir to close out a distinctly unfunny year. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase A Wealth of Pigeons from amazon.com.
Decades. Longtime Republican operative Stuart Stevens reflects on the past five decades of political life and draws conclusions that disclose his complicity in what has become a long con. In a book titled, It Was All a Lie: How the Republican Party Became Donald Trump, Stevens describes his participation in and observation of the modern Republic Party and candidly assesses the lies that have displaced the principles on which his party was based. Anyone interested in politics should consider reading this book. Rather than stories or invective, this book presents analysis. Some Republicans may bristle at Stevens’ assessment or brand it as fake, and some Democrats may be inclined toward agreement and glee, but any citizen can examine the past few decades and observe much of what Stevens presents in this book, whether we want to face those facts or not. Hearing from an active participant with such candor makes this book different. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase It Was All a Lie from amazon.com.
Outsider. Don’t let the cute cover image of Sayaka Murata’s novel titled, Earthlings, lull you. This is a dark story of a troubled woman named Natsuki who feels like an alien within her own family and society. When in Tokyo, she is scolded by her mother, and abused by a young teacher. She finds refuge during Summer, which she spends on a Nagano mountaintop at the home of her grandparents. Her cousin Yuu and her plush toy Piyyut claim to be from the planet Popinpobopia and being on the mountain may bring them closer to their real home. Murata pulls readers into Natsuki’s troubled and dark life as each succeeding episode makes us understand her difficulties in new and disturbing ways. This novel seems to want to tell us about the troubles of contemporary society and does so in ways that will be haunting for many readers. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Earthlings from amazon.com.
Holocaust. In his novel titled, The Memory Monster, Yishai Sarid presents the report of an unnamed narrator to the head of Yad Vashem describing his life as a historian and his immersion into every detail of the Holocaust. We read about what the historian learned about extermination methods and processes at the death camps, and how he presented what he learned to groups visiting the sites of the Holocaust. As we turn the pages, we feel the building presence of hate, and how obsession changes over time. We see the combination of hate and power and the ease with which a path to murder can occur. The power of the past dominates the present for this historian, and we observe how the force of memory can overpower one’s will. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Memory Monster from amazon.com.
Process. Former South Bend Mayor and nominated Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg taps into the zeitgeist in a book titled, Trust: America's Best Chance. He describes that the most important work of our time ahead is the restoration (or creation) of trust among all citizens. He explores the steps and the process that we could use to make trust work again in American life. We need to place trust in our institutions, in each other and in our fragile experiment in democracy. New networks of trust need to be established to pull us together to address the most important issues of our time, including climate change, racial justice and economic justice. I found myself thinking of the many times in my life when others placed their trust in me, and when I extended my trust to others. I reflected on those times when my trust in someone was abused, and the challenge of trying to rebuild trust once it was lost. Readers interested in our democratic society and in public policy are those most likely to enjoy reading this timely book. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Trust from amazon.com.
Search. The third installment of David Baldacci’s series featuring FBI agent Atlee Pine is a novel titled, Daylight. Pine and her sidekick, Carol Blum, have left Arizona to search for Atlee’s missing sister, Mercy. As they follow leads, they stumble into the case of another recurring Baldacci protagonist, John Puller, and they combine forces to help each other. The action proceeds rapidly, as Pine and Puller utilize all their skills to defeat opponents and get the answers they are after. Fans of this series and crime fiction are those readers most likely to enjoy this novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Daylight from amazon.com.
Underneath. Emma Cline plumbs what’s beneath the surface of the lives of interesting characters in her short story collection titled, Daddy. In each of the ten stories, Cline finds a way to touch the wounded place, or to home in on the key turning point that disturbs a life. As we read, we find authenticity underneath a veneer. Things are never as they initially appear. Fans of finely written literary short stories are those most likely to enjoy this collection. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Daddy from amazon.com.
Experiment. Diane Cook’s ambitious debut novel titled, The New Wilderness, taps into themes that will satisfy many readers. We enjoy the dynamics of a complicated mother-daughter relationship in protagonists Bea and Agnes. We explore the challenges of life in a not-too-distant future when an unhealthy urban environment leads Bea, Agnes and a group of eighteen fellow nomads to live in the wilderness as an approved experiment to learn if community survival can be achieved through this way of living. Cook examines power, survival and coming of age within an engaging and imaginative plot filled with interesting and complex characters. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The New Wilderness from amazon.com.
Voices. The ten stories in the collection by Nicole Krauss titled, To Be a Man, seemed to speak to each other as well as to readers. Across multiple times and places, the stories explore identity in ways that are familiar and strange. The prose is finely written, and the insights into human nature are often profound. I felt the tension among relatable characters as they engage with each other. These are our voices in the stories, this is our life, this is our experience. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase To Be a Man from amazon.com.
Us. Sometimes it takes the talent of a gifted writer to describe experiences of living that illuminate both those who have similar experience as well as those who think the world just isn’t that way. In her book titled, Conditional Citizens: On Belonging in America, Laila Lalami describes her experience in the United States in the context of being a citizen and also receiving messages that she doesn’t belong here. If you continue to think in terms of a melting pot, you’re likely to revise that view after reading this book. Lalami holds us all to task at the reality of who we mean whenever we say, “we.” What does it mean today to be “one of us?” How welcoming are we to fellow citizens who don’t look or sound like “us?” What are the things we do every day to welcome others or to send them the message that they do not belong? Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Conditional Citizens from amazon.com.
Thursday, December 17, 2020
Gripping. If you avoid reading history because you find it dull, consider picking up a copy of a book titled, The Lincoln Conspiracy: The Secret Plot to Kill America's 16th President--and Why It Failed, by novelist Brad Meltzer and historian Josh Mensch. The book tells the story of a plot by a Baltimore secret society to kill Abraham Lincoln on his journey by train to Washington, DC in 1861 to assume the duties of the United States Presidency. I had never heard of this plot before, so I found the narrative gripping to read and was excited to find out something new about Abraham Lincoln. An added bonus involves the way Allan Pinkerton was involved, how he kept the secret, and that he employed a woman to play a key role in protecting Mr. Lincoln. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Lincoln Conspiracy from amazon.com.
Yellowjackets. There’s a lot going on inside the 640 pages of Emily M. Danforth’s novel titled, Plain Bad Heroines. There’s a book within a book including asides to we readers, and a movie within a movie that’s within the books. There’s devil’s work being done, along with satire, in two time periods: 1902 and 2015. Every time the yellowjackets appear, and they show up regularly, it’s time to pay close attention. After a while, some readers may almost anticipate the arrival of some buzzing or the sense of a swarm getting underway. The cast of woman characters who are intensely interested in each other will intrigue many readers. The gothic overtones increase and diminish until we become accustomed to the presence of ghosts and the will of the yellowjackets. Danforth pulls us into her joyful playfulness in this novel, and we find it easy to get comfortable with ghosts and curses. Readers who enjoy clever writing and are comfortable with ambiguity are those most likely to enjoy this creative novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Plain Bad Heroines from amazon.com.
Magic. Fans of Jeff VanderMeer won’t think twice about falling into his latest world, a 650-page YA novel titled, A Peculiar Peril. When protagonist Jonathan Lambshead arrives at the mansion he inherited from his grandfather, a wild adventure begins featuring a gateway to place called Aurora, a different version of Earth. On the adventure, we find talking animals, and versions of Napoleon, Charlemagne and Kafka. Jonathan comes to appreciate his role to keep Aurora and Earth separated. The strange characters are delightful, especially the talking marmots, the fantasy enjoyable, and the writing weird and lighthearted. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase A Peculiar Peril from amazon.com.
Bug. One of my favorite protagonists among the many books I’ve read in 202o is Beauregard “Bug” Montage in S.A. Cosby’s novel titled, Blacktop Wasteland. Bug is a talented auto mechanic, and he knows how to drive cars fast. Abandoned by his criminal father, Bug strayed for a while when he served as a wheelman in crimes. He now owns his own business and has a loving wife and children. Financial constraints lead to temptation, and the novel explores the tension with Bug as he’s caught between the man he wants to be, and the identity he feels with his missing father who chose crime over family many years before. Cosby draws Bug as a complex character and readers will feel the tension as Bug tries to become the man he was born to be. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Blacktop Wasteland from amazon.com.
Bridge. The second novel in the Fairmile series by Philippa Gregory is titled, Dark Tides. One of my gripes about reading the second novel in a series is the amount of repetition from the first installment. With this novel, I have no such complaint, but wish that the author had helped connect more of the dots. Protagonist Alinor Reekie from the first novel returns in a secondary role in a setting two decades after the first, with the Restoration as the backdrop. James Avery who left Alinor to fend for herself, is now a widower and returns expecting a warm welcome now that his family fortune has been recovered thanks to his support of the king. Instead of picking up on their thread in any direct way, the action involves the wife of Alinor’s son, Rob, a delightfully wicked manipulator and criminal named Livia. Another plot line involves the life of Alinor’s brother, Ned, who lives in New England, caught in the uncomfortable shifting tides between the indigenous people and the English settlers. Many readers will look forward to hearing more about the adventures of 21-year-old twins Sarah and Johnnie, the children of Alinor’s daughter, Alys. In the meantime, what we have here is likely a 450-page bridge between the introduction of the series in the previous novel, and the action to follow in the next. Patient fans of historical fiction are those readers most likely to enjoy this installment and this series. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Dark Tides from amazon.com.
Russians. For the twenty-fifth installment in his Jack Reacher series, author Lee Child has teamed up with his brother, Andrew, a fellow writer, for a jointly written novel titled, The Sentinel. The roaming Reacher takes a pause in his nomadic life when something interesting catches his attention. Soon after arriving in a town near Pleasantville, Tennessee, Reacher observes Rusty Rutherford, an IT manager, stumble into an ambush. After Reacher intervened with his skills and saved Rusty, his interest is piqued. Before long, he’s sticking around running across Russian spies and a ransomware attack with a secret objective. I found the slower pacing of this installment to be different from the earlier novels, but the plot and entertainment value remained satisfying for this reader. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Sentinel from amazon.com.
Aging. Novelist Elizabeth Berg has written a memoir titled, I’ll Be Seeing You, which focuses on the family dynamics as her elderly parents faced the need to leave their home and move into an assisted living facility. While this is the story of one family, Berg helps us see ourselves and own families in this story, thanks to fine writing and candor about the range of positive and negative emotions, especially while trying to care for another from a long distance. The introspection in this memoir leads to insight, and guilt leads to peace. Whatever your stage in personal aging or in caring for those who need assistance at the late stages of life, this memoir will lead to your personal reflections about love and caring and the different forms that takes over time. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase I’ll Be Seeing You from amazon.com.
Fieldwork. Good writing about an unfamiliar place makes Jonathan Slaght’s book titled, Owls of the Eastern Ice: A Quest to Find and Save the World's Largest Owl, a delight to read. I was a bit hesitant to open this book about a scientist’s fieldwork in finding fish owls in Primorye, a province in the far eastern part of Russia. After just a few pages, I was hooked on learning about Slaght’s fieldwork searching for a two-foot- tall owl with a six-foot wingspan. Readers can almost feel what Shaght experiences while living in a tent under freezing conditions, crossing rivers packed with melting ice, finding the owls in multiple locations, drinking vodka, and relaxing in a banya. Readers with any interest in scientific fieldwork or conservation will find a lot to enjoy in this finely written book. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Owls of the Eastern Ice from amazon.com.
Paralyzed. Chairman Juan Cabrillo and the other members of the Corporation have returned in a novel titled, Marauder, the sixteenth installment in The Oregon Files series by the Clive Cussler franchise. Following the damage in the last installment to their ship, The Oregon, a whole new craft has been built with even more powerful weapons and disguises. A worthy adversary has developed a chemical weapon that causes paralysis and it’s up to Juan and the team to thwart the complicated plans to deploy the chemical on a large population center. As fans expect, the action moves rapidly, the characters are familiar, and the entertainment is satisfying. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Marauder from amazon.com.
Prodigal. For the fourth time, Marilynne Robinson takes readers to the fictional town of Gilead, Ohio to tell us things about ourselves that we need to know. The novel titled, Jack, features John Ames Boughton, the wayward son of the Presbyterian minister in earlier novels. The long opening of the novel is a spellbinding conversation conducted overnight in a cemetery between Jack and a Black woman named Della Miles, a local high school teacher. Their love blooms quickly, despite their inability to marry at that time. The conversation in the cemetery is a masterpiece of carefully constructed sentences that engage the two characters and all readers in a deep dialogue about life. The first three novels in this series brought us to this cemetery and to the challenges that Jack and Della have to face in the world, despite their abiding love for each other. Robinson compels us to feel with them as they turn away from the world toward each other and into what is most important. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Jack from amazon.com.
Wednesday, December 9, 2020
Beloved. No matter how much you think you know about the late John Lewis, you’re likely to learn something new about him after reading Jon Meacham’s book titled, His Truth Is Marching On: John Lewis and the Power of Hope. From his early life in rural Alabama preaching to chickens through his service in the United States House of Representatives, you’ll learn about all the different kinds of good trouble this beloved man got into in a full life of service to others. Against powerful forces, especially in the struggle for civil rights, Lewis maintained a steady focus on ideals and values, not wavering from taking the next step toward achieving a more perfect union. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase His Truth Is Marching On from amazon.com.
Intense. If there was ever a year that demanded the lamentations we find in a finely written elegy, it is 2020. In his novel titled, Homeland Elegies, Ayad Akhtar offers an intense narrative about finding one’s place in contemporary America, especially for those raised in a different culture. The novel draws us into the dynamics of a single family and their problems and issues, which provide a mirror in which we can see ourselves and others. This novel is an uncomfortable and cleareyed look at capitalism and the current reality of the American dream. There is raw disillusionment on these pages, and heartbreak. By the end of the novel, our feelings for a father, a son, and for the United States have commingled and we join our voices in an intense song of lament at our common predicament. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Homeland Elegies from amazon.com.
Paintball. John Bolton settles scores and brashly positions himself as the smartest of all in his book titled, The Room Where It Happened: A White House Memoir. The image I had while reading this book was Bolton holding a paintball gun and shooting at targets including Jim Mattis, Stephen Mnuchin, Donald Trump, Mike Pompeo and many others. I also had an image of the multiple yellow legal pads on which he recorded snippets in real time while working at the White House in preparation for this book. While some memoirs offer humble perspective, this book has Bolton’s raw ego on display on every page. Readers interested in public affairs are those most likely to appreciate this contribution to recent political history. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Room Where It Happened from amazon.com.
Edie. Raven Leilani’s debut novel titled, Luster, features a Black protagonist named Edie, an artist who navigates through a world that has left her unmoored. I found myself rereading sentences that are exquisitely crafted and express in art the life that is Edie. Before we know it, readers are awash in the waves that Edie tries to ride as she spends her 20s trying to find her place in the world. We encounter issues about race, class and fidelity. We watch as Edie takes one step after another toward becoming herself. Fans of finely written fiction are those readers most likely to enjoy this novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Luster from amazon.com.
Magical. Alaya Dawn Johnson presents the perspectives of three characters in her novel titled, Trouble the Saints. In the first section, we meet an assassin named Pea whose hands have an unexplained, inherited, magical power. Pea’s lover, Dev, comes next, and we learn more about Pea and others from his perspective. By the time a dancer named Tamara gives her perspective, we know her well enough to increase our appreciation of her humanity and complexity. The prose often sings, and the setting in New York in the 1940s is drawn with great skill. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Trouble the Saints from amazon.com.
Twists. Fans of suspense novels will enjoy being deceived by the narrative in Aimee Molloy’s novel titled, Goodnight Beautiful. Protagonists Sam Statler and his new wife, Annie Potter, leave New York City to make a new life in Sam’s quiet hometown upstate. What follows builds in suspense, especially after Sam goes missing. Just when a reader follows the clues, Molloy switches gears and there’s a new puzzle to figure out. I enjoyed every time I had to accept that what I thought was going on just wasn’t the case. This novel offers readers a few hours of good entertainment. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Goodnight Beautiful from amazon.com.
Descriptive. In his book titled, The Hardest Job in the World: The American Presidency, journalist John Dickerson calls on Americans to reevaluate how we define the role of United States President, what we expect of a president, and how to best select the best person to carry out that role for a specific period of time. Using loads of examples, Dickerson describes how the job has changed over time, and how the current expectations of any president makes that person be set up for failure. Readers interested in public affairs are those readers most likely to enjoy this book. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Hardest Job in the World from amazon.com.
Symbolism. No symbol is subtle in Ursula Hegi’s novel titled, The Patron Saint of Pregnant Girls. Set on an island off Germany in the late nineteenth century, the joy from a traveling circus turns to despair after a giant wave drowns three children. The novel opens with that dramatic action, then develops the characters of three surviving mothers and how they deal with loss. Life on a small island means that there’s no escape from the looks on the faces of everyone who knows what the wave took away from you. Hegi allows the unfolding of joy in a beautiful setting while maintaining the presence of pain that will never go away. The novel celebrates these women, and every reader can gain strength from spending time with them in this novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Patron Saint of Pregnant Girls from amazon.com.
Freedom. What every parent wants most of all is for their child to be happy. In her novel titled, The Great Offshore Grounds, Vanessa Veselka throws readers into the messy lives of parents and children. Thanks to rich character development and vivid description, patient readers can cross the world with these fascinating people as they learn about what’s really important in life. Financial insecurity might be a better inheritance than the inability to love or the absence of freedom. Whether on land or the sea, sibling bonds are strong, and a mother’s love and care is constant. Readers who love complexity and depth in a novel will find a lot to enjoy in this finely written novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Great Offshore Grounds from amazon.com.
Secrets. The latest installment in the Mike Bowditch series by Paul Doiron is a novel titled, One Last Lie. Fans of the Maine game warden will enjoy the return of a familiar cast of characters, and the revelation of long-held secrets. Retired warden Charley Stevens has gone missing, and Mike goes on a hunt to find him. Charley’s daughter and Mike’s former girlfriend returns adding interest about a new spark for an old relationship. Fans of crime fiction are those readers most likely to enjoy this novel and this series. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase One Last Lie from amazon.com.