Tuesday, January 26, 2021
Carraway. Have you ever imagined the life of the narrator of The Great Gatsby, Nick Carraway, and what experiences led him to his time in West Egg? In his novel titled, Nick, Michael Farris Smith offers readers one way to think differently about this fictional character. In Smith’s telling, Nick has been traumatized by war and the loss of love. Instead of heading from the trenches of France back home to Minnesota, he changes trains in Chicago and goes to New Orleans where he loses himself in new ways and heals in others. After just a few pages, I gave little thought to Fitzgerald’s Nick Carraway, because Smith’s life of Nick before Gatsby offers a compelling story in its own right, and this complex Carraway will appeal to those readers who enjoy richly developed characters whether new, familiar, or imitated. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Nick from amazon.com.
Defendant. The sixth installment of Michael Connelly’s Lincoln Lawyer series featuring defense attorney Mickey Haller is a novel titled, The Law of Innocence. Haller’s world turns upside down after he is arrested for murder and has to defend himself from jail. Mickey knows that he’s innocent although the evidence looks bad for him, and that to restore his reputation he will need to find the real murderer. Fans of crime fiction and this series are those readers most likely to enjoy this novel. I enjoyed the plot momentum and the return of familiar and interesting characters. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Law of Innocence from amazon.com.
Activism. Reverend Al Sharpton offers a commentary about contemporary social justice issues in his book titled, Rise Up: Confronting a Country at the Crossroads. This lifelong preacher knows how to listen and how to speak. This book presents a message about activism and its importance as we respond to injustice. Sharpton invites us to examine our core values and apply them to the challenges of modern life. Street protests can make many citizens uncomfortable while allowing a voice for the victims of injustice to be heard. In the calmness of wherever it is you read, consider absorbing this book and finding the form of activism that you find appropriate to meet the challenges of this time in America. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Rise Up from amazon.com.
Fatherhood. Any parent reading Peter Ho Davies’ novel titled, A Lie Someone Told You About Yourself, will ache for the unnamed characters at the heart of the story. After testing in utero reveals the likelihood of abnormality, a mother and father struggle with the choice of whether or not to abort the pregnancy. We feel their struggle with this decision and the guilt and shame that they face. When their next pregnancy produces a son, we see parenting mostly from the father’s perspective, as parents exude love for this most wanted boy who has secured a place on the autism spectrum. Davies’ fine writing and insights into fatherhood will propel readers through this novel and into thinking about many dimensions of fatherhood. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase A Lie Someone Told You About Yourself from amazon.com.
Search. Before you commit to searching for something or someone, do you ever hesitate with second thoughts about what you might find? In her novel titled, The Less Dead, Denise Mina’s protagonist, Dr. Margo Dunlap goes on a search for her birth mother following the death of her adoptive mother. What Margo finds on her search shakes her bearings and unsettles her life. Mina offers darkness and humor in this novel, and contrasts characters whose life choices made all the difference. Rating: Three-star (It’s ok) Click here to purchase The Less Dead from amazon.com.
Deception. Three narrators alternate chapters in Alice Feeney’s psychological thriller titled, His & Hers. The plot will hook most readers quickly as we meet interesting and complex characters and develop suspicions about almost all of them. We find ample motivation in lots of characters to commit murder, and not many are eliminated from suspicion quickly. Readers who love plot twists and thrillers are those most likely to enjoy this exciting novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase His & Hers from amazon.com.
Undaunted. Readers who love strong female protagonists will enjoy meeting Afi Tekple in Peace Adzo Medie’s debut novel titled, His Only Wife. Afi works as a seamstress in Ho, a small Ghanaian village. After her mother encourages Afi to marry a wealthy businessman named Elikem, the favored son of their landlady who is the mother’s bossy employer and head of a prominent family. Medie explores the ways in which individuals scheme and manipulate different family members who fall in and out of favor for various reasons. Afi moves to Accra and quickly adjusts to finding her way in a larger world with a husband who neglects her, works hard, and has another loving relationship and a child he loves living in a home he owns and with his complete support. We cheer Afi as she stands up for herself, undaunted by the pressures coming from her family and her husband’s. This is one of those engaging novels that will animate your next Zoom book club meeting. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase His Only Wife from amazon.com.
Selling. Mateo Askaripour’s debut novel titled, Black Buck, skewers startups, racism, the sales process, and workplace life. The novel is structured as a sales manual and offers pretty good advice about selling. I expect that Black readers will guffaw at the multiple scenes in which protagonist Darren as the only Black employee at Sumwun gets told regularly that he resembles some Black celebrity, a different one every time. Askaripour speeds us through Darren’s transformation into a highly successful salesman, and the changes to his character as this happens. We never get the chance to relax while reading this novel, as we shift from a dramatic scene to a selling takeaway. A section that begins with tranquility ends with violence. Kindness turns to cruelty. White supremacy exercises power as a dish best served cold. I loved every page of this roller coaster of a book. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Black Buck from amazon.com.
Fragments. Those who pay attention to the night sky know that the full moon that arrives in December is called the “cold moon.” I had the good fortune to read Roger Rosenblatt’s wise book titled, Cold Moon: On Life, Love, and Responsibility, just after the latest cold moon arrived to announce the winter solstice. Acknowledging his own arrival in the winter phase of life, Rosenblatt offers in this book fragmentary reflections that celebrate being alive, that remind us of the centrality of love, and that focus our attention on the meaning that we find when we extend care to others and become responsible to specific individuals. It can be easy to get distracted as we muddle through life, and in this wise book, Rosenblatt helps us gain and retain focus on those things that really matter. He brings light to the dark nights of winter. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Cold Moon from amazon.com.
Memory. The fifth Vish Puri novel by Tarquin Hall is titled, The Case of the Reincarnated Client. This time out, India’s Most Private Detective juggles two cases. His indefatigable Mummy-ji provides both impetus and wisdom especially in a case from the past that had once been investigated by Puri’s father. Hall focuses our attention on memory and recollection in this installment, and fans of Chubby’s gustatory exploits will be alarmed by one scene in which Puri actually seems to have lost his appetite. Readers who enjoy crime fiction, especially this series, are those most likely to enjoy this entertaining novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Case of the Reincarnated Client from amazon.com.
Saturday, January 16, 2021
Provocative. Go big or go home. In his book titled, One Billion Americans: The Case for Thinking Bigger, Matthew Yglesias offers a provocative proposal. He believes the best future for the United States will be to increase our population to a billion people. If you think we’re “full” now, Yglesias has other ideas for you to consider. He tackles a variety of objections and provides an array of policy proposals that would lead to a thriving society in which a billion Americans would live. Whether you’re skeptical or curious, I recommend giving his ideas some thought. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase One Billion Americans from amazon.com.
Unreachable. I wouldn’t have noticed Yu Miri’s novel titled, Tokyo Ueno Station, had it not won a National Book Award. Protagonist Kazu has led a sad and unlucky life, much of connected to Tokyo’s Ueno Station. At so many times during his life, better times were so close, just outside his reach. Instead, he faced loss, grief, homelessness and scraping along on the margins of the busy city life around him. The descriptive language soars with beauty on these pages and builds melancholy in a reader with each passing page. Readers who enjoy finely written literary fiction are those most likely to enjoy this haunting character and his story through life and after death. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Tokyo Ueno Station from amazon.com.
Bag Man: The Wild Crimes, Audacious Cover-up, and Spectacular Downfall of a Brazen Crook in the White House
Prosecutors. If what you remember most about the Nixon administration is Watergate, may I mention the name of the Vice President of most of those years to jog your memory? Spiro Agnew was a larger-than-life character, relatively unknown outside the State of Maryland when Nixon chose him for Vice President to shore up support from conservative Republicans (who weren’t the only variety in the 1960s and 1970s). In a book titled, Bag Man: The Wild Crimes, Audacious Cover-up, and Spectacular Downfall of a Brazen Crook in the White House, Rachel Maddow and Michael Yarvitz lay out Agnew’s crimes and what led to his resignation from office in 1973. The heroes in this story are the young prosecutors in this story who built a solid case that had nothing to do with Watergate. Attorney Elliot Richardson listened to the prosecutors, gave them room to operate and ended up negotiating terms of resignation for Agnew that put the interests of the United States first. Fans of recent history and public affairs are those most likely to enjoy this account of crime in high places. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Bag Man from amazon.com.
Bloat. It can feel perfect to settle into a thousand-page novel knowing that the story to follow is likely to be interesting and engaging. I anticipated that feeling as I opened the fifth installment of the Cormoran Strike series that J.K. Rowling writes as Robert Galbraith, a novel titled, Troubled Blood. For a while it was satisfying to be back with Strike and Robin Ellacott as the detective partners took on a cold case. The middle five hundred or so pages of this novel felt like bloat to me as the exposition became a tad tedious and the various plot lines, investigations, and personal relationships moved at a glacial pace. Instead of setting the book aside, I slogged on to the end, and enjoyed the resolution of the main case. Readers who enjoy mysteries and this series are those most likely to enjoy this novel, especially if one can remain patient for just under a thousand pages. Rating: Three-star (It’s ok) Click here to purchase Troubled Blood from amazon.com.
Excess. Stephen Wright excoriates the self-absorbed vulgarity of modern life in his satiric novel titled, Processed Cheese. An odd and narcissistic cast of characters with zany names looks for satisfaction in consumerism, violence, sex and an excess of personal degradations. Parody and satire can be entertaining or overbearing, and readers can find both in this novel. The pace of the plot can be exhausting, especially following the rapid opening sequence that sets up the premise of the novel: when a bag of money falls out of the sky when what you need is cash, what would you do? The excesses of this novel tired me out, but I appreciated how perfectly Wright captures our cultural obsessions. These characters do not provide the models for human behavior, but they are exactly who we are more often that we would care to admit. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Processed Cheese from amazon.com.
Bearings. What happens when we lose our bearings? In his short novel titled, The Silence, Don DeLillo presents another take on the dread of contemporary life and the immediacy of our mortality. Because of his finely written prose, we feel the struggle of the characters like us in this novel who struggle to find language and engage in conversation after technology has suddenly shut down. Following such a shock, how do we know where we are, where we are going, and what the hell is going on? Welcome to our world as presented by a talented writer who finds a way to condense so much into this short book. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Silence from amazon.com.
Safety. One of the reminders we all received as we opened the gift of the pandemic is that life can change in an instant. Rumaan Alam offers readers a finely written novel titled, Leave the World Behind, that places characters into a setting of uncertainty in which they face a world that has changed. A couple and their two children rented a rural house for a week’s vacation away from New York City. The owners show up at the house late at night and ask if they can stay there because something caused a massive blackout in the city. Alam explores the ways in which we respond to shock and change, and what creates a sense of safety or threat for us. Readers find themselves in the middle of issues of race, class, privilege and ambiguity. Perhaps all we desire is to survive whatever comes at us so we can live for another day. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase Leave the World Behind from amazon.com.
Disturbing. There are haunting settings and chilling stories in the four novellas by Joyce Carol Oates collected in a book titled, Cardiff, By the Sea. The threats to the fully formed characters in these novellas are usually chilling, and Oates’ insight into psychological states allows readers to experience goosebumps of our own as we read the expertly crafted prose. I found myself embraced by a sensation of dread as I turned these pages. If that’s how you’d like to be entertained, consider reading this book. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Cardiff by the Sea from amazon.com.
Turns. In Matt Haig’s imaginative novel titled, The Midnight Library, protagonist Nora Seed gets multiple chances to lead a fulfilled life. She visits a magical library that contains an infinite number of volumes about a possible life she could live if she just made one tweak at some turning point in her past. What would any of us do differently if we could? How would the stories of our lives play out had we done one thing versus something else? What are we looking for out of life, and where do we find satisfaction and fulfillment? Haig writes with delicacy and whimsy, leaving most readers uplifted about life after reading this novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Midnight Library from amazon.com.
Descriptive. The first volume of Barack Obama’s presential memoir is titled, A Promised Land. Using a conversational writing style that flows easily, Obama describes the job of president with clarity, giving readers a feel for the role as a job. The text is thoughtful and introspective, and he presents his recollections in ways that allow readers to feel like close observers of what happened during his presidential terms of office. He offers more personal information that I expected, and a vulnerability that came across as refreshing and candid. Readers interested in hearing the former president’s thoughts are those most likely to enjoy this finely written memoir. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase A Promised Land from amazon.com.
Tuesday, January 5, 2021
Quartet. The debut novel by Cara Wall titled, The Dearly Beloved, sings in celebration of friendship, marriage, faith and understanding. Four finely drawn complementary characters unite at a Presbyterian Church in New York City where Charles and James have been selected to serve in a joint ministry to heal the community following a poor choice in appointing the previous pastor. Faith led Charles to reject a privileged academic future at Harvard, and love led him to marry Lily, an atheist and free spirit. James grew up poor in Chicago, promotes church activism, and married Nan, the daughter of a southern minister. The harmony of this quartet in New York City amid setbacks and challenges and downright pain and suffering rings true for any reader who has lived. These are great and memorable characters and the novel’s prose will fall easily on the ears of all readers, but especially fans of finely written literary fiction. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase The Dearly Beloved from amazon.com.
Defense. The third novel by John Grisham featuring Clanton, Mississippi lawyer Jake Brigance is titled, A Time for Mercy. The local judge has appointed Jake to defend a teenage boy who shot and killed a popular police officer. Jake doesn’t want to take the case, and this temporary appointment becomes permanent after no one else will defend the young man. The small town expects swift justice and a death penalty sentence, and Jake’s popularity and business activity declines after he takes on the case. Before long, Jake sees the case from another perspective, and he ends up risking his financial security during his defense. Fans of Grisham are those readers most likely to enjoy this legal thriller, full of heart about characters who pop out on the page to settle into our own hearts as we care deeply about what happens to them. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase A Time for Mercy from amazon.com.
Intensity. Within the first few pages of Elisabeth Thomas’ debut novel titled, Catherine House, many readers will become uneasy. With every turned page, that feeling remains and its intensity increases. The setting is the closed campus of an elite but secretive university at which the students are confined to the grounds and expected to adhere to all the strict rules for three years of hard work after which they can move on to a prominent place in society. As we learn more about the admissions process, the students and teachers and the research underway, the creepiness of the place sets in and even the activities of regular campus life take on sinister undertones. Readers open to new authors and to an intense plot are those most likely to enjoy this novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Catherine House from amazon.com.
Escape. Are you ready for a different pandemic? If so, consider reading Lauren Beukes’ exciting novel titled, Afterland, about the journey of a twelve-year-old boy, Miles, and his mother, Cole, who cross the United States from Seattle to Miami to escape a fate for Miles that Cole finds untenable. Cole is fierce in her efforts to protect Miles, and the plot momentum delivers intensity and thrilling action. Readers who love a great story with interesting characters and thrilling action are those most likely to enjoy this novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Afterland from amazon.com.
Labyrinth. For an imaginative escape from your own reality, consider reading Susanna Clarke’s novel titled, Piranesi. Most of the novel is set in an alternative world, a labyrinth with what seems like unending rooms full of beauty where tidewater ebbs and flows. Protagonist Piranesi explores this world and learns the rhythms of life. For a while Piranesi seems to be alone, but after the “Other” appears, things get even more interesting. It will take a while for many readers to become acclimated to Clarke’s prose, but patience pays off for those who enjoy a complicated structure and lots of levels of meaning. There’s no time like the present for exploring a new world. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Piranesi from amazon.com.
Choices. The world is unlikely to see an inside story from Bob Mueller about his time served as special counsel of the investigation into Russian interference into the 2016 presidential election in the United States so to find out more about this subject we have to look to someone else. Prosecutor Andrew Weissmann performed a key role in that investigation, and has written a detailed book titled, Where Law Ends: Inside the Mueller Investigation, about his perspective on what happened. Weissmann describes the choices and decisions made by Mueller and others throughout the investigation and the consequences of those choices. He also proposes ways to reform the approach used for future special investigations by amending the current process to ensure greater independence and transparency. Readers interested in public policy are those most likely to enjoy this informative book. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Where Law Ends from amazon.com.
Puzzle. The fourth installment of the new Hercule Poirot mystery series by Sophie Hannah is a novel titled, The Killings at Kingfisher Hill. The familiar and beloved detective performs exactly as expected within a twisting plot that will satisfy most mystery fans. I found a few of the supporting characters to be interesting and complex, while most provided a bit of backdrop, but little depth. What most of us mystery readers want is a good puzzle, and I found this one satisfying. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Killings at Kingfisher Hill from amazon.com.
Perspective. After reading Peter Strzok’s book titled, Compromised: Counterintelligence and the Threat of Donald J. Trump, I’m confident that he wishes that his FBI work had been completed professionally without his ever becoming known by the general public. In this book he tells his side of a story that played out in recent years based on the investigation of Russian meddling into the 2016 election and any complicity by the Trump campaign in that foreign interference. Depending on your political affiliation and the news outlets you follow, chances are you already know about Peter Strzok and have reached a conclusion about him and his work while at the FBI. I encourage you to give him a hearing by reading his version of what he did and be open to amending your perspective. I found his description of his role at the FBI to be informative, and the ways he described the nature of counterintelligence work were of great interest. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Compromised from amazon.com.
Fun. Step aside, Emily in Paris, there’s a new woman in town. For a fun reading adventure set in Paris, consider reading Jane Smiley’s warm-hearted and entertaining novel titled, Perestroika in Paris. The protagonist is a thoroughbred horse named Perestroika, Paras for short, who wanders away after winning a race and settles into a months-long adventure in the heart of Paris. All the animal and human characters in this novel will make most readers smile, from the dog, Frida, to a young boy named Etienne, who cares for his nonagenarian great-grandmother, who is blind and deaf. This novel positively reeks with kindness, and I can think of no better way to be entertained during these interesting times. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase Perestroika in Paris from amazon.com.
Guidance. Philosophers tackle tough questions about the meaning of life. Gurus of every type offer guidance on “how to” almost everything. In his novel titled, The Archer, Paulo Coelho tells a story about how to live a meaningful and integrated life. While brief with words, this novel overflows with wisdom and guidance for every reader’s thoughtful reflection. For readers who are spiritual but not religious, this book can provide a launchpad for thinking about one’s life.
Rating: Four-star (I like it)
Click here to purchase The Archer from amazon.com.