Thursday, September 23, 2021
Correlations. The ways in which groups can become so caught up in misinformation and delusions rose to a crescendo in many places as the coronavirus spread. In the seventeenth novel by Louise Penny to feature Chief Inspector Gamache titled, The Madness of Crowds, spurious correlations by a statistician rile up a crowd and infect a community. When murder in Three Pines follows, Gamache and his team need to solve a case that is too close to home. On top of all the usual fine writing in this series, Penny adds a heavy moral question for society that makes the novel all the more engaging. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase The Madness of Crowds from amazon.com.
Change. Life in the Périgord can seem settled in keeping things the same until everything changes at once. In the sixteenth installment of the Bruno Chief of Police series by Martin Walker, a novel titled, The Coldest Case, Bruno’s life overflows with all that needs be done. When he sees how technology has evolved in reconstructing facial features from ancient skulls, he wonders if it could be used on a skull from a three decades-old unsolved case. Meanwhile, his dog has sired puppies for the first time, and a scientist doesn’t eat meat, so Bruno prepares a vegan feast for her and his friends. Climate change impacts the region, and after the fire threat becomes dire, Bruno and others have to use all their wits to protect the community and its treasures. As always, the writing in this series is finely done, the stories and characters are engaging, and the eating and drinking will give readers an appetite for a special meal of one’s own. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Coldest Case from amazon.com.
Hope. During the darkest periods of life, it can be difficult to find hope. Matt Haig understands depression and darkness from his own life experience, and he offers a quirky book of fragments titled, The Comfort Book, as a form of inspiration to others that life will get better. Readers may connect with some nuggets, roll eyes at some aphorisms, reject parts as irrelevant, and find comfort and hope from unexpected places. Reading this book is like getting a big hug. Who can’t use an extra hug? Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Comfort Book from amazon.com.
Investigation. Naomi Hirahara’s novel titled, Clark and Division, pulls readers into an investigation into a death in Chicago in 1944 that introduced me to things most readers probably don’t know about Chicago during World War II. Inspired by historical events, Hirahara tells us about the lives of Japanese Americans who went from productive lives to internment to resettlement far away from their former homes. Protagonist Aki Ito and her parents arrive in Chicago to join Aki’s sister Rose who arrived before them. Just before their arrival, Rose was killed by a subway train. Twenty-year-old Aki wants to find out the truth about Rose’s death which was ruled suicide. Fans of mysteries will love the investigation. Readers who enjoy historical fiction will enjoy learning about the lives of Japanese Americans in Chicago in 1944. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Clark and Division from amazon.com.
Blind. Tom Lin’s debut novel titled, The Thousand Crimes of Ming Tsu, is like no American Western you’ve ever read. The novel is set alongside the tracks of the Central Pacific Railroad during its construction, and protagonist Ming Tsu has embarked on a journey to settle scores. Lin draws a landscape we thought we knew with descriptive and vivid language that makes it seem new and fresh. We learn how Ming has been wronged and watch him as he is led by a blind prophet through the desolate West. I found myself becoming hungry and thirsty as Ming runs short of food and water. I felt satisfied when Ming carried out frontier justice. I marveled about how Lin helped me see revenge as a path toward love, the driving force behind Ming’s journey. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Thousand Crimes of Ming Tsu from amazon.com.
Redemption. Stephen King respects readers enough to allow us to read his work on as many levels as we choose. For those looking to read a gripping story, the novel titled, Billy Summers, delivers an engaging and entertaining story. For those who enjoy complex characters who grapple with issues of right and wrong, protagonist Billy Summers reveals our own human behavior with clarity: most of us try to do the right thing; we sometimes do things we know are wrong; and we try to find ways to do things we know are wrong for what we consider the right reasons. Billy is a talented sniper, and he accepts assignments to shoot people who have done bad things. The novel presents what he considers his last job. In the course of this novel, he finds himself able to pursue a journey toward redemption, and by the time we reach that part of the story, we are cheering for Billy no matter what he does. King knows how to get our attention, how to keep it, and how to throw a curve that surprises and satisfies. I loved every minute spent with Billy Summers. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase Billy Summers from amazon.com.
Sam. The center of attention in T.C. Boyle’s novel titled, Talk to Me, is a young chimp named Sam who appears on the book jacket. Guy Schermerhorn is a college professor devoted to a project in which he is raising Sam in a human household, teaching Sam to converse with human housemates using sign language. After undergraduate Aimee Villard moves in, Boyle has the backdrop for exploring all the ethical and philosophical issues to explore about interspecies interaction, which he does with great skill. I found this novel develops the notion of what it means to be human in ways that should engage readers, and helps us appreciate and understand the power of language. We also have to face what we are willing to do for love, in whatever form we find it. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase Talk to Me from amazon.com.
Broken. There’s a fascinating cast of broken characters in Paula Hawkins’ murder mystery titled, A Slow Fire Burning. Along the journey to discover who murdered a young man and why, we learn about the lives of a half dozen characters, each of whom has been broken in their lives. Hawkins explores grief and its long-term effect on multiple characters. She allows multiple characters to present their versions of the story, and gradually we come to an understanding about their lives and some reasons why they acted in the ways they did. Fans of crime thrillers may find a slower than usual pace in this novel, but the characters are the treat here: complex individuals moving through life with heavy burdens to carry. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase A Slow Fire Burning from amazon.com.
Nun. You’ve gotta love these nuns. Claire Luchette’s entertaining debut novel titled, Agatha of Little Neon, draws readers into a fascinating cast of characters, including nuns. Protagonist Sister Agatha is forced to leave her comfortable convent in Lackawanna when she and fellow sisters are assigned to run a halfway house in Woonsocket. Luchette develops Sister Agatha as a complex and interesting character and injects the novel with even does of humor and insight. The prose is finely written, and the time spent with the sisters and the ensemble cast was totally enjoyable. No matter how much you love nuns as you start reading this novel, you’ll love them a lot by the end. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Agatha of Little Neon from amazon.com.
Gray. Private eye Grayson Sykes gets her first solo assignment: finding somebody’s missing girlfriend. In her novel titled, And Now She’s Gone, Rachel Howzell Hall developed Sykes with complexity, and offers a thrilling crime novel. Somehow Hall is able to place abuse and humor within the confines of the same page, and we appreciate both. The search for the missing woman becomes more complicated with every plot twist, and Hall keeps us interested in both the case and in Gray Sykes. Fans of crime fiction are those readers most likely to enjoy this exciting and finely written novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase And Now She’s Gone from amazon.com.
Thursday, September 16, 2021
Noir. I can think of no better setting for an enjoyable noir novel than Hollywood during the 1950s. James Ellroy masters this setting and that era’s style in his novel titled, Widespread Panic. There’s dirt to mine on Jack Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe, Rock Hudson, and a host of other prominent figures of that time. The person to reveal all the secrets is protagonist Freddy Otash, a talented rogue. Freddy’s voice in Ellroy’s hands provides the perfect rhythm to draw readers into that special time and place. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Widespread Panic from amazon.com.
Agent. What’s not to like about a spy novel set in Silicon Valley? I was thoroughly entertained by Kathy Wang’s novel titled, Imposter Syndrome, in which protagonist Julia Lerner is a Russian agent who has become the COO of a major company. As her Russian handlers increase pressure on providing the information Moscow wants, Julia becomes conflicted. When a low-level employee detects Julia’s activity, the plot thickens. Fans of espionage novels are those readers most likely to enjoy this contemporary story. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Imposter Syndrome from amazon.com.
Inheritance. Katie Tallo’s thrilling debut novel titled, Dark August, introduces readers to a strong female protagonist, Augusta “Gus” Monet, who we begin to care deeply about from the beginning of the novel. Her listless life becomes enlivened when she learns that her last living relative has died and she claims her inheritance. What follows is a well-paced pursuit of uncovering secrets and searching for the truth. Tallo’s writing offers realistic dialogue, supportive narration, and complex and interesting characters. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Dark August from amazon.com.
Overview. George Packer overviews the contemporary situation in the United States and proposes that there are four narratives running simultaneously and dominating sectors of American life. In his book titled, Last Best Hope: America in Crisis and Renewal, he names these narratives: Free America, Smart America, Real America, and Just America. Packer suggests that these narratives may be barriers to sustaining democracy, and he suggests the development of a common identity. It turns out that “we” are our last best hope and can repair our fractured society. Readers interested in a cogent narrative about contemporary public affairs are those most likely to enjoy this finely written book. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase Last Best Hope from amazon.com.
Sacrifice. You don’t have to be a science or space nerd to love Andy Weir’s novel titled, Project Hail Mary, because the thrilling plot and interesting characters make for an enjoyable story. Nerds will be delighted by the whole premise of a junior high science teacher from one planet teaming up with an engineering maven from another planet to save life on both their planets. Protagonist Ryland Grace has been selected for a sacrificial mission to travel to space to solve a problem that has begun to cause calamity on Earth. Weir makes it easy for all readers to enjoy the science, appreciate the peril at hand, and leads us to care about what will happen. This is a story of sacrifice by one person to serve the common good, a great lesson for our time and any time, and one hell of a good story. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase Project Hail Mary from amazon.com.
Debt. Fans of finely written literary fiction are those readers most likely to enjoy Hye-Young Pyun’s novel titled, The Law of Lines. We find parallel stories of two women, Se-oh and Ki-jeong as they deal with loss, grief, and debt. A crime investigation ties the two stories together and the links they discover are thrilling and dark. I found myself feeling some dread as I read this novel, and uncomfortable in the darkness. When debt overwhelms, we feel its power. Rating: Three-star (It’s ok) Click here to purchase The Law of Lines from amazon.com.
Survival. Paul Yoon’s finely written novel titled, Run Me to Earth, takes us to Laos in the 1960s when everyday life involved survival from a barrage of bombs that became routine. Through orphans Alisak, Prany and Noi, we learn what it takes to live in this horrible situation. We find hope on these pages as the characters experience cruelty and beauty. The contrast of the best and worst of human nature keeps our intense focus as we join the journey of these characters. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Run Me to Earth from amazon.com.
Disconnected. It’s hard to talk about money. I recall some decades ago making conversation with another parent during parent’s weekend at a university. From my clueless ignorance, I asked a dairy farmer how many cows he had, not realizing that that question was the equivalent of asking to peek at a statement of his financial assets. In her memoir titled, We Need to Talk: A Memoir About Wealth, Jennifer Risher shares her own life experience with money, and how upon achieving significant wealth, she found herself conflicted. I found myself wincing often as I read this book, realizing how disconnected Risher’s life is from all but a tiny proportion of our planet’s population. Her memoir involves a privileged first world millionaire trying not to decide how much private jet travel can be done as a family before the children feel entitled. I encourage readers of this memoir to consider the experience like a trip to the zoo: the observation of a species not quite like our own. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase We Need to Talk from amazon.com.
Provoking. Libertarian Charles Murray joins the fray on the topic of systemic racism in a new book titled, Facing Reality: Two Truths About Race in America. Murray offers numeric ammunition to those who deny racism by recycling some of his prior analysis of intelligence and criminality. His book title alone stakes the high ground in any debate by claiming what he offers is both reality and capital “T” truth. He also dismisses any contrary views by describing that he is presenting data, not opinion, that differences in outcome by group are explained by White and Asian cognitive superiority and Black and Hispanic high violent crime rates. Any barriers to upward societal mobility by group can be explained by the numbers he presents, proving there is no such thing as systemic racism. I find Murray’s presentation disingenuous, but I liked this book because I can see that because of his facile acceptance of false assumptions, his argument falls totally apart, and those who look to him for a counter argument to systemic racism will find a lot of data but no insight.
Rating: Four-star (I like it)
Click here to purchase Facing Reality from amazon.com.
Movies. The thrilling action of Riley Sager’s novel titled, Survive the Night, takes place on a single night, mostly in a rideshare car. Protagonist Charlie has decided to take time off college following the murder of her roommate. Charlie’s lifelong love of cinema has led her to see the world as if we were all in a film. She regularly zones out from reality as her brain plays a reel for her. Not long into the car trip home, she begins to suspect that the stranger driving the car might be her roommate’s murderer. Fans of mystery thrillers are those readers most likely to enjoy this novel, packed with twists and with interesting characters. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Survive the Night from amazon.com.
Wednesday, September 8, 2021
Paris. Five years after his award-winning novel titled, The Sympathizer, Viet Thanh Nguyen reprises many of those characters for a novel titled, The Committed, set in Paris when the Sympathizer arrives there in the early 1980s to join a criminal gang and deal drugs. Nguyen explores big question in this novel about post-colonial culture. Characters are caught between conflicting ideas and opposing moral codes. The past is never far behind, and the future remains cloudy. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Committed from amazon.com.
Chilling. What does a parent do if your child is a psychopath? Ashley Audrain’s novel titled, The Push, gives readers the opportunity to think about that question. Not long after giving birth to daughter, Violet, protagonist Blythe Connor begins to think there is something wrong. Blythe’s husband, Fox, denies and dismisses her fears and concerns. Readers are left to gape in horror at the consequences of not taking Blythe’s concerns seriously. Audrain captures the overwhelming sorrow that enfolds Blythe as this chilling novel observes Violet’s actions that fulfill her mother’s greatest fears. Parents who read this novel will hug their children longer than usual as a way of thanking them for not being like Violet. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase The Push from amazon.com.
Uncertainty. Now what? In his debut novel titled, The Sweetness of Water, Nathan Harris takes readers to rural Georgia as the Civil War ends and every character feels uncertain about how to answer the question about what happens next. Every character takes a tentative step into the future. Hope and fear travel side by side. Memories of past trauma remain vivid. Healing may be possible. It doesn’t take many pages for readers to feel deeply about these complex characters and observe unflinchingly what they need to do to survive and thrive. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Sweetness of Water from amazon.com.
Tara. For her debut novel titled, Burnt Sugar, Avni Doshi selected an examination of one of those most challenging motifs in fiction and in life: the mother-daughter relationship. Could any writer have a new perspective on this relationship? We have the impression of Tara as a free spirit who left her husband to join an ashram, where she placed her daughter, Antara, in the care of Kali Mata, an American devotee. Both Tara and Antara remember the past in different ways, learning the subjectivity of truth and the porousness of identity. The powerful emotions Doshi presents are delivered with finely crafted prose and insight into human behavior. We ache with Antara at her mother’s selfishness and instability and smile with her as Tara suffers. Doshi handles anxiety and rage with a perspective that perhaps does add new dimensions to a relationship about which millions of pages have already been written. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Burnt Sugar from amazon.com.
Unreliable. Alice Armitage, the unreliable narrator of Mark Billingham’s novel titled, Rabbit Hole, began to annoy me within the first few pages of this book. She’s a patient in an acute psychiatric ward and her running commentary has an erratic, frantic and troubled rhythm. While this is not Wonderland, there is a rabbit hole through which Alice serves as our guide. Patient readers who stick with Alice will be rewarded by a terrific narrative with murders to solve and the constant question about how reliable Alice is in what she is telling readers. Spending time with Alice in the psych ward was thrilling and entertaining, and every twist was executed by Billingham with great skill. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Rabbit Hole from amazon.com.
Contrasts. In her debut novel titled, Winter in Sokcho, Elisa Shua Dusapin structures a variety of contrasts for our close examination. Set on the border between North and South Korea, we start with that dramatic geographic and cultural contrast. The protagonist is a young French Korean woman who is the receptionist at a guesthouse. Her mother works at a fishmarket and has the skills to prepare those fish that could be venomous to eat should others wield the knife improperly. A French cartoonist arrives at the guesthouse and develops a constrained relationship with the receptionist, as Dusapin mines their differences to contrast their lives. When they travel together, the inspiration he seeks never seems to be discovered. He avoids the reception’s offer to cook for him. We anticipate the culmination of all the contrasts of life and death as he prepares to leave the guesthouse. Fans of literary fiction are those readers most likely to enjoy this novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Winter in Sokcho from amazon.com.
Trauma. J.D. Salinger has generated curiosity among generations of readers because of his reticence to talk about himself and the reclusive life he led after his writing became renowned. In his novel titled, Sergeant Salinger, prolific writer Jerome Charyn presents an account of Salinger’s life during World War II. Readers are left with the impression that it was the trauma of the war and his personal suffering that led to the quality of Salinger’s writing. The contrast of Salinger before and after the war is developed with great skill and insight. Whether you’re interested or not in a fictional interpretation of Salinger, you’re likely to enjoy this entertaining and finely written novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Sergeant Salinger from amazon.com.
Motherhood. Rachel Yoder’s debut novel titled, Nightbitch, will appeal in a special way to any parent whose role led to some temporary or permanent loss of one’s mind. A nameless protagonist places her career as an artist on hold to stay at home with her newborn son, a practical arrangement since her husband’s income exceeds hers. While the husband travels for work every week, the mother compares herself unfavorably to those other moms who seem to have it all together. With a sharp satire at modern parenting, Yoder lets the mother become more animal than human and that’s just what was needed to break out of languish. By the time we are accustomed to what seems like a fantasy life, Yoder arranges performance art which restores the mother to her self-identity as an artist. Laugh and howl with this novel and the transformations it offers for our insight and entertainment. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase Nightbitch from amazon.com.
Sinatra. The second novel by Jake Tapper to feature protagonists Charlie and Margaret Marder it titled, The Devil May Dance. Set in the early 1960s, we find the Marders sent on a case by Attorney General Robert Kennedy who is concerned about risks to his brother, the President, as well as to the security of the United States. Tapper fills in the color of this time with a prominent place for Frank Sinatra in the story, and the vivid ways in which he describes the lure of Hollywood. Tapper builds tension in this story that will appeal to readers who enjoy a good mystery and thriller, especially those who enjoyed our introduction to the Marders in The Hellfire Club. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Devil May Dance from amazon.com.
Poetic. The language and images in Eva Baltasar’s debut novel titled, Permafrost, are poetic and lucid. The narrator observes the world and expresses her desires with clarity. Readers find an inner life that contrasts with that self she presents to the world. We feel the protagonist speaks to us with raw honesty and that’s something of a privilege for us to savor, and to stimulate the desire in us to know more. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Permafrost from amazon.com.