Monday, November 22, 2021
Marriage. The depth of insight about marriage throughout Elizabeth Strout’s novel titled, Oh William!, will arrive to readers like a slowly rising tide. No one moment ratchets up the insight, but before we notice, we are in deep water. Strout reprises her complex protagonist, Lucy Barton, from two previous novels, and places her in a situation involving her first husband, William, as she grieves the death of her beloved second husband. William’s recent losses have been sudden and despite their separation, there is no one else who understands Lucy and William as well as they know each other, for better and for worse. Readers roam in the inner spaces of these characters as we observe the way they present themselves to the world and recognize the disconnections that are familiar to all of us. Readers with experience of marriage are those most likely to savor all the wisdom and insight in this finely written novel. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase Oh William from amazon.com.
Diagnosis. Two questions remained unresolved for me after I read Sanjay Gupta’s book titled, World War C: Lessons from the Covid-19 Pandemic and How to Prepare for the Next One. First, is it still too soon in the progression of the pandemic to be able to learn lessons? Second, can lessons be learned in an environment where we don’t share a common fact base? Despite still having those questions, I enjoyed Gupta’s diagnosis and prescription. He writes with clarity for general audiences and offers any reader with an interest in this subject a thoughtful assessment of where we’ve been and where we need to go. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase World War C from amazon.com.
Bombs. Readers willing to place political allegiances aside for a few hours and acknowledge that two women had a ball collaborating on a novel so maybe there’s something to enjoy in the product of their efforts. Former United States Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton joined forces with crime novelist Louise Penny to write a thrilling novel titled, State of Terror. With Penny’s skills at character and plot, and Clinton’s insider view of world affairs, the result is an entertaining novel about bombs ready to devastate three locations in the United States. Penny fans will love the connections in this book to Three Pines, and Clinton fans will love the behavior of the fictional Secretary of State as she interacts with the President and various world leaders. I was thoroughly entertained. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase State of Terror from amazon.com.
Aphasia. Fans of finely written literary fiction will marvel at the way Jon McGregor finds just the right words in his novel titled, Lean Fall Stand, to draw readers into the life of someone suffering from aphasia. In the opening section, Lean, we find protagonist Robert Wright on an expedition in Antarctica caught in a storm, hanging on a cliff, and suffering a stroke. His stroke has led to aphasia, and the middle section of the novel, Fall, focuses on his wife, Anna, and her role as caregiver. McGregor dissects the ways in which communication obstacles strain love and burden those in relationship. For the final section, Stand, Robert joins a support group and begins to find his voice. All along the way, McGregor’s prose suits each section perfectly, and displays his considerable skill. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Lean Fall Stand from amazon.com.
Patience. Three compelling main characters and a thrilling plot combine into an exciting novel by John Grisham titled, The Judge’s List. Lacy Stoltz was a character in an earlier Grisham novel, and he loves her like a favorite child in putting her at the center of this novel. In her work for the Florida Judicial Review Board, she’s approached anonymously by Jeri Crosby with a shocking accusation: a sitting Florida judge is a serial killer. Jeri’s father was a victim of this judge’s revenge, and Jeri presents Lacy with the results of two decades of dogged investigation presenting her case against the judge. The judge has carefully planned his murders, waiting patiently until the circumstances allow him to act on his own careful terms. Fans of crime fiction are those readers most likely to enjoy this exciting novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Judge’s List from amazon.com.
Light. When you’re in the mood for a funny and lighthearted relationship novel, consider reading Beth O’Leary’s novel titled, The Road Trip. A funny thing happens on the way to a wedding in remote Scotland: two cars crash, and one is not drivable. Since they were going to the same event, the passengers decide to travel together in the less damaged vehicle. The awkwardness is that two of the passengers broke up two years earlier, and it’s a small car and a long drive for Dylan and Addie. This sweet and messy story develops quickly and ends easily, hitting all the light touches that provide brief, mindless entertainment. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Road Trip from amazon.com.
Lessons. How does change happen in society? In his book titled, Extra Life: A Short History of Living Longer, Steven Johnson explores the reasons for the doubling of life expectancy over the past century. There are lessons from his analysis to apply in our society today, especially since there are changes to life expectancy because of responses to the coronavirus pandemic. Many factors have led to the increase in life expectancy and curious readers may know some of them, but few will be able to list all the ones that Johnson describes in this interesting book. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Extra Life from amazon.com.
Keene. Knowing how busy Stacey Abrams has been for years in her day jobs, I wasn’t sure what to expect when I picked up her legal thriller titled, While Justice Sleeps. I was thoroughly entertained by the clever and engaging story, the fascinating characters led by protagonist Avery Keene, and the fine writing. Keene is a law clerk who finds herself appointed as legal guardian for her boss, Justice Howard Wynn who is in a coma. She learns that Wynn has been investigating a case and what he has learned is alarming. Keene must solve a complex puzzle while powerful people are rushing to carry out their plans. I still don’t know how Abrams found the time to write to write this novel, but I’m happy she did. I was hooked and delighted by the story. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase While Justice Sleeps from amazon.com.
Schemes. I was truly surprised by some twists in Alexandra Andrews’ debut novel titled, Who Is Maud Dixon?. The plot is engaging, the characters complex and well-developed, and the prose well written. The schemes of the characters are delicious to watch as they unfold, and the dark comedy is entertaining. The pace moves fast, and the clever writing offers frequent rewards to readers as we race to the end of the novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Who Is Maud Dixon from amazon.com.
Surreal. Fans of speculative fiction are those readers most likely to enjoy the seven science fiction short stories in a collection titled, Terminal Boredom, by the late Izumi Suzuki. These stories have only recently been translated into English, and most readers may be surprised that they were written four and five decades ago. Suzuki marvels at how we respond to all the weird things that happen. Within the darkness of her stories there’s a resilience or response that makes the dystopia somewhat irrelevant, or perhaps normal. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Terminal Boredom from amazon.com.
Tuesday, November 16, 2021
Spectrum. Helen Hoang continues to present characters on the autism spectrum to readers of her novels. In her book titled, The Heart Principle, we find concert violinist Anna facing burnout. After her boyfriend surprises her that he wants to pursue an open relationship before committing to each other, Anna decides she wants an open relationship as well. What follows is a story of finding true love, taking on roles that are difficult, and retaining one’s individuality within a family. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Heart Principle from amazon.com.
Inheritance. Damon Galgut won the 2021 Booker Prize for his novel titled, The Promise. This family saga set in South Africa focuses on a farm, a house and an inheritance, told over the course of time and four funerals. We watch the end of apartheid through the decline in the Swart family. We watch their suffering and loss from a rot at the core of their lives. We watch the progression of moral bankruptcy as they try to hold on to what cannot be. Galgut takes us beneath the surface in every scene to examine what’s really going on whether we want to see it or not. Fans of literary fiction are those readers most likely to enjoy this award-winning novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Promise from amazon.com.
Trust. The issues explored in John L’Heureux’ posthumous novel titled, The Beggar’s Pawn, made me think the author possessed a vivid awareness of his own mortality. We find an affluent couple, David and Maggie Holliss, easing into retirement, and navigating the rough terrain of complicated relationships with their three adult children. After they extend trust to a stranger in the form of a small loan, that person seems to become the center of their lives in ways that are frustrating and tragic, allowing L’Heureux to explore the terrain of charity and justice. The strains of a health scare bring all the underlying issues to bear and reveal brittle and fragile bonds even where we believe love is strong. Fans of fine writing are those readers most likely to enjoy this novel. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase The Beggar’s Pawn from amazon.com.
Manners. Octogenarian novelist Diane Johnson still has a thing or to observe and to say about how some of us live today. In another era, her novel titled, Lorna Mott Comes Home, might be considered a comedy of manners, so perhaps that may be the best summary of this novel. Protagonist Lorna Mott Dumas has left her second husband in France where she’s lived for two decades and returns home to San Francisco. She finds a place far different from the one she left, and her extended family are facing concurrent challenges of coping with the ups and downs of contemporary life. Fascinating characters and fine writing make this diversion a delight to read. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Lorna Mott Comes Home from amazon.com.
Plural. Rest assured that Cate Quinn’s novel titled, Black Widows, is not about spiders. Set in rural Utah, the novel explores the lives of a family practicing the tradition of plural marriage. The point of view shifts among three wives of Blake Nelson, and our understanding of these characters changes as the novel progresses. First wife Rachel seems obedient and reticent. Second wife Tina seems rebellious and unmoored. Young wife Emily seems naïve and frightened. Quinn develops each character with empathy and skill and moves them through a plot that will entertain most fiction fans. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Black Widows from amazon.com.
Bloody. The last place I expected to find Denise Mina’s fiction is in a retelling of the bloody 1566 murder of Mary Queen of Scots’ secretary, David Rizzio. In her short novel titled, Rizzio, Mina dramatizes the events leading up to the murder, and uses her skills to build suspense on every page. Readers who know the history will enjoy how Mina provides context and insight. Some readers who enjoy Mina’s fiction may want to learn more about history after reading this novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Rizzio from amazon.com.
Imagination. If I were forced to place César Aira’s book titled, The Divorce, into a category, I would create a new one for this author’s imagination and skill: post-magic realism. Within the course of a few pages, we move from one coincidence to another. We think we can separate imagination from reality, and then realize we can’t. When we’re sure we are hearing a mundane story, something magical seeps in. Aira moves readers along as fast as we can read, taking us tighter and tighter into his imagination. This book is short enough to read a second time for a different take, but trust me, multiple readings may not lead to greater understanding, just more questions. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Divorce from amazon.com.
Whiteness. By throwing out any unnecessary words in her debut novel titled, Assembly, Natasha Brown uses just over one hundred pages to assemble and dismantle the stories we tell ourselves and each other about class, race, gender, success, and safety. The Black female narrator examines her life and experiences with clarity. The societal canvas presents Whiteness as the impossible ideal for woman like her. The expectation of obedience and complicity comes from a colonial heritage that remains central to contemporary life in Britain. This incisive novel presents modern life head-on and eyes wide open. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Assembly from amazon.com.
Disturbing. The best essayists challenge our thinking and demand that we look at those things that are important. Dara Horn’s critical essays in a collection titled, People Love Dead Jews: Reports from a Haunted Present, disturbed me and challenged me. Horn takes on lies and hypocrisy with focus and insight. She uses anger as power to strengthen her prose and succeeds with great skill in making her critical case. If you are open to the notion of structural racism, Horn makes a compelling case for the global prevalence of structural anti-Semitism. Horn’s passion, scholarship, and insight make these essays important reading that leads a reader toward deeper understanding. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase People Love Dead Jews from amazon.com.
Journey. I was so ready to read a hero’s journey, and Amor Towles met all my expectations in his novel titled, The Lincoln Highway. Eighteen-year-old protagonist Emmett Watson has been released from a Nebraska prison where he was serving time for involuntary manslaughter in 1954. His plan to abandon the family farm and head to California with his younger brother to find their estranged mother was amended when two escaped prisoners convince him to join them in New York on his journey to California. The novel captures about ten days with this fascinating cast of characters and allows Emmett to set the course of his life. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase The Lincoln Highway from amazon.com.
Saturday, November 6, 2021
Allie. I’m often reluctant to open the first novel in a planned series, since I know that if I like it, there will be a larger queue building of books I will want to read in the future. Once I picked up Val McDermid’s novel titled, 1979, and met protagonist and journalist Allie Burns, I knew I would read all future installments. Allie is the rare woman working for Scotland’s daily newspaper, The Clarion. McDermid describes life in Scotland in 1979 with great skill, and we watch Allie hold her own as she investigates stories and finds comfort at work and in life. Fans of crime fiction are those readers most likely to appreciate the character and plot development in this novel. I’m already wondering what Allie will do next. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase 1979 from amazon.com.
Feast. A multi-course feast for readers who enjoy finely written literary fiction begins as Jonathan Franzen presents the first course, a novel titled, Crossroads, introducing the Hildebrandt family, mostly in the 1970s. Franzen polishes each family member’s character through finely written dialogue, backstory, and omniscient revelation of deep inner lives. Russ Hildebrandt is a hapless associate pastor at a suburban Chicago Protestant church, and he becomes something of a comic foil through his foibles and weaknesses. His wife, Marian, entered their marriage with secrets, and the more we discover her depths, the more we appreciate her rage, no longer repressed. The children are each developed with empathy and insight and face their own setbacks. While the title refers to a teen group at the church, it also describes and presents the turning places for each family member of the course of this novel. I loved this first course and found Franzen more sympathetic to these characters than he’d been with earlier novels. The religious themes in this novel can be examined by any reader through additional reflection, and there should be plenty of time to digest this novel before we are presented with the next installment. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase Crossroads from amazon.com.
Control. If you think weather in Los Angeles (sunny and warm) is boring, you have not been paying attention. To remedy that, consider reading Maria Amparo Escandón’s novel titled, L.A. Weather. We meet the Alvarado family as aspects of their life seem to be out of control. Peril is at hand for reasons known and kept secret. Renewal is required but brings risks. Readers will enjoy spending time with this fascinating extended family as they navigate the storms of life together and apart. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase L A Weather from amazon.com.
Columns. Margaret Renkl’s column in The New York Times makes my “must read” list every Monday. Sixty of those columns from recent years have been collected and slightly revised for a book titled, Graceland, At Last: Notes on Hope and Heartache From the American South. What I want from a short essay is some observation and insight about the world that makes me think a little bit harder and longer about something important. These columns reflect observation and insight and wisdom that always encourages me to think. Renkl’s prose is finely written, and whether you’ve read her before or start here, you’re likely to find yourself thinking a little harder and longer about something. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase Graceland At Last from amazon.com.
Lies. The plot twists are reason enough for thriller fans to pick up Alice Feeney’s novel titled, Rock Paper Scissors. Something is not quite right in the relationship between Mr. and Mrs. Wright. Adam is a screenwriter whose face blindness means he cannot recognize faces, even those closest to them. When the couple head to the Scottish Highlands, the lies in their marriage start to unravel, and Feeney offers readers one twist after another as the truth eludes us. The narrative proceeds from multiple perspectives and readers remain uncertain right to the end of the novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Rock Paper Scissors from amazon.com.
Marie. Fans of compelling and complex fictional characters are those readers who will love Marie, the protagonist of Lauren Groff’s novel titled, Matrix. Marie is the half-sister of Eleanor of Aquitaine who has dismissed the seventeen-year-old from the royal court and sends her to join a remote group of impoverished nuns. Marie thrives in the abbey where her leadership transforms the community and builds self-sufficiency. Groff imagines all that a woman could accomplish in the 12th century within an abbey free from life with men. The prose is finely written, and medieval life comes alive on these pages. Readers who enjoy historical fiction, especially with strong female characters, are those most likely to enjoy this novel. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase Matrix from amazon.com.
Infidelity. The Greek myths visit the Lone Star State and the Briscoe family in Stacey Swann’s debut novel titled, Olympus, Texas. First, draw the rural Texas town of your choice. Second, introduce the town’s leading family and imbue them with hubris and infidelity. Third, multiply the characters and stir. The result gives a contemporary take on mythology and the glories of dysfunctional families. Grab some popcorn, watch the family fireworks, and try to predict the next wrong turn in Briscoe family life. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Olympus Texas from amazon.com.
Desire. The connected stories in the book titled, Filthy Animals, by Brandon Taylor overflow with desire. As the pages turn, we ache at the misalignment with societal expectations and the longing for connection. We are overheated in the hothouse of student life. We watch characters struggle to learn to love and feel their deep desire. We read Taylor’s finely crafted sentences that are unflinching in examining the lives of the characters in these stories. The pain and love become palpable, and readers cannot look away. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Filthy Animals from amazon.com.
Range. Don Winslow displays the virtuosity of his writing range in his book titled, Broken, six short novels written as a homage. In a story dedicated to Raymond Chandler, we feel the style of that master in Winslow’s dialogue and prose. It’s easy to visualize Steve McQueen in the story dedicated to him. I closed my eyes and felt it was really Elmore Leonard writing the story dedicated to that genius. Fans of crime fiction will enjoy each of the stories in this collection for Winslow’s skill and as homage to those to whom the stories are dedicated. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Broken from amazon.com.
Avarice. The sharp wit in Rivka Galchen’s novel titled, Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch, provides a balance to the exploration of avarice at the heart of the story. Galchen places neighbors underneath a high-powered microscope and reports what she observes with energy and passion. While set in Germany in the 17th century, aspects of this story are present in every contemporary subdivision, apartment building, or community group. Galchen’s finely written prose will give reading pleasure to all fans of literary fiction, and her lessons about living alongside others will appeal to every reader. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch from amazon.com.