Saturday, December 18, 2021
Guide. A cataclysm has happened before the start of Joy Williams novel titled, Harrow, and our guide to what comes next is a teenaged protagonist named Khristen. It’s been two decades since readers have seen a novel from Williams, and there’s experimentation and freshness in this work that will reward her patient fans. Khristen arrives at a lakeside resort and finds the lake has turned black and the area populated with a cast of strange people who had been eco-warriors. I delighted at every word I had to look up as I read this novel, and found my eyes opened to the natural world and decay in new ways. Williams drags us to notice dying and demands us to pay attention and do something. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Harrow from amazon.com.
Community. The suburbia setting in Bethany Ball’s novel titled, The Pessimists, bears little surface resemblance to the world that John Updike mined so often. On closer examination, we do find the banality, white privilege, and moral decline that Updike dissected. Readers with experience of certain expensive private schools will love Ball’s creation of Petra School. The cast of characters present themselves on one level to their community, but beneath that presentation there is something far more interesting. Ball cultivates this landscape with great wit and skill, and fans of fine writing will find a lot to enjoy in this novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Pessimists from amazon.com.
Race. The backdrop for the nineteenth novel to feature Bath detective Peter Diamond, a book titled, The Finisher, is a half marathon race. What Diamond sees among the finishers of the race puts him on full alert. What follows is an entertaining crime novel, in which Lovesey offers twists on multiple finishers as the story unfolds. Fans of this series are those readers most likely to appreciate the return to a familiar character and setting. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Finisher from amazon.com.
Green. As a proud son of Brooklyn, I confess that I had never heard of Andrew Haswell Green, the man responsible for the consolidation of Manhattan and Brooklyn, until I read Jonathan Lee’s engaging novel titled, The Great Mistake. Fans of historical fiction can escape our current era and head to New York in the nineteenth and twenty centuries. Green is a complex and fascinating character at the center of great transformations for New York City. The scenes in this novel are vivid, the story entertaining and enlightening, and the characters memorable. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Great Mistake from amazon.com.
Mothering. There’s pain on every page of Claudia Piñeiro’s novel titled, Elena Knows. Protagonist Elena will not accept that her daughter, Rita, committed suicide. Despite the pain of Parkinson’s, Elena traverses Buenos Aires to solve the mystery of her daughter’s death. We join Elena on this journey as Piñeiro explores the topic of the control of women’s bodies and the relationship between mothers and daughters. Piñeiro leads readers to view the world as it is and to show us who we are whether we want to accept that or not. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Elena Knows from amazon.com.
Adversaries. The twenty-sixth installment in Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series is a novel titled, Better Off Dead, co-written with his brother, Andrew Child. The action opens with Reacher walking west in the Arizona desert minding his own business. What follows is his enlistment in the search for a missing person, and his pitting his skills against a very worthy adversary. Fans of the series will enjoy all the ways that Reacher plays the angles, wipes out obstacles, and improvises the best way to prevail. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Better Off Dead from amazon.com.
Manipulation. Plot twists and thrilling action propel Clare Mackintosh’s psychological novel titled, Hostage. Flight attendant Mina Holbrook has volunteered to work on the inaugural flight of nonstop service from London to Sydney, a twenty-hour journey. Mina left unresolved family issues on the ground. It’s what’s in the air that becomes fascinating, a group of terrorists who have been manipulated by someone with a dastardly plan. Book club leaders would ask around the circle what each reader might have done in Mina’s place. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Hostage from amazon.com.
Recognition. For the eighth installment in his Quirke series of crime novels, a book titled, April in Spain, John Banville has abandoned pseudonym, Benjamin Black. Perhaps Banville recognized what many readers concluded long ago: the difference between literary fiction and popular fiction is artificial and unnecessary. While on holiday with his wife in Spain, on the coast of San Sebastian, Quirke recognizes a woman who couldn’t be there because she was murdered years earlier. What follows is an engaging and exciting story that fans of this author by whatever name and of this series will appreciate. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase April in Spain from amazon.com.
Drought. I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that I laughed a lot while reading Alexanda Kleeman’s dystopian climate change novel titled, Something New Under the Sun. She makes a catastrophic drought humorous. Writer Patrick Hamlin leaves his wife, daughter, and the east coast for California where his novel is being made into a film. His self-absorption provides a reliable motif throughout the novel. Cassidy Carter is a Hollywood starlet cast for the film, so why would she not be self-obsessed? Tinseltown satire is always funny, especially when done as well as Kleeman does here. Along with the characters, readers adapt to the looming menace of fires and the water shortage. We don’t think twice as some characters shift to drinking WAT-R, a commercial substitute for the water that is no longer available. Kleeman plays with absurdity in this novel, and her sentences are so finely crafted that their beauty can distract readers from the overall story and I found that to be a refreshing pleasure. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Something New Under the Sun from amazon.com.
Dissipation. Journalist Anderson Cooper and historian Katherine Howe collaborated to write an account of the Vanderbilt family in a book titled, Vanderbilt: The Rise and Fall of an American Dynasty. Cooper is the great-great-great-grandson of Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt who built a family fortune in shipping and railroads. We see the gilded age from a family perspective in this book and watch the dissipation of the dynasty through family dysfunction and overspending. The individual family members are presented with insight and sensitivity. Readers interested in history and family dynamics will find a lot to enjoy in this entertaining and interesting book. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Vanderbilt from amazon.com.
Monday, December 13, 2021
Glow. If you’ve ever found yourself standing before a portrait painting and wondering what the subject’s life was like, you’re likely to enjoy the compact yet sweeping story of protagonist Zorrie Underwood in Laird Hunt’s novel titled, Zorrie. We find Zorrie in Depression-era rural Indiana, orphaned first when her parents died, and abandoned again when the aunt who took her in also died. We watch her scrap together a life, finding her place in the world, glowing for real when dusted with radium from the plant where she finds a job. Laird gives us a complete life to ponder in this novel, and the resulting portrait is a masterpiece. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Zorrie from amazon.com.
Questions. In her debut novel titled, Super Host, Kate Russo tells the story of a painter and three women in his life. At age fifty-five artist Bennett Driscoll’s life seems rudderless. Among the questions he addresses in this novel is what does he want? The three women that come into his life open him to new possibilities. Russo will make many readers laugh and the portrait she draws will lead to questions of our own as we consider what’s next in our lives. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Super Host from amazon.com.
Spectacle. Have you ever wondered what the place where you live was like when people first settled there? In his larger-than-life story of the origins of Cleveland, Ohio, a novel titled, Cuyahoga, Pete Beatty presents a rowdy spectacle on which contemporary readers can gaze agog. Set in 1837, we meet an eclectic cast of characters on the dirt streets of twin towns vying to become the greatest city of the Western Reserve. Their rivalry takes expression in the form of building a bridge across the Cuyahoga River. Readers will laugh at the farce as the plot unfolds, enjoy the exploits of interesting characters, and admire the whole scenic spectacle that Beatty describes with enthusiasm and joy. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Cuyahoga from amazon.com.
Family. Sure if it weren’t for the secrets held close to the heart in Irish families, there’d be nothing left to hold us together. In her debut novel titled, We Are the Brennans, Tracey Lange explores the ways in which tightly knit families can be wounded, and what it takes for all members of the family to heal. Readers who love interesting stories packed with family drama are those most likely to enjoy this novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase We Are the Brennans from amazon.com.
Sherlock. The first time I encountered the world’s greatest detective, Sherlock Holmes, was in the film version set in the 1940s and featuring Basil Rathbone as Holmes. Robert J. Harris chose 1942 London as the setting for his own Sherlock tribute, a novel titled, A Study in Crimson. Scotland Yard is stumped by a killer who is murdering women on the same dates that Jake the Ripper killed in 1888, so they turn to Sherlock Holmes for help. Fans of crime fiction homage are those most likely to enjoy this novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase A Study in Crimson from amazon.com.
Betrayal. Chris Offutt’s novel titled, The Killing Hills, appeals to fans of thrillers in multiple ways. Protagonist Mick Hardin is a complex and compelling character who reveals himself as skilled investigator, supportive brother, insubordinate employee, and distracted husband. The rural setting and a suspicious death allow Offutt to riff on the alliances and secrets among families in the Kentucky hollers. Mick’s sister is a local sheriff who asks her brother to help her out on her first murder case. The intensity builds on every page, and the tight prose and clear dialogue propels readers at a quick pace toward a satisfying conclusion. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Killing Hills from amazon.com.
Ballet. In her novel titled, The Turnout, Megan Abbott choreographs a complex story about three characters twirling around each other at the Durant School of Dance. Sisters Dara and Marie have danced forever at the ballet school founded by their mother, and prize student Charlie married Dara. The balance in their lives pirouettes out of control as the story develops. Readers who enjoy dark novels with interesting characters and complex plots are those most likely to enjoy this book. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Turnout from amazon.com.
Escape. Gabriel Bump’s debut novel titled, Everywhere You Don’t Belong, tells the coming-of-age story of protagonist Claude McKay. Claude is an ordinary kid trying to find his place in the world. Bump draws the South Side of Chicago with care and love, not flinching at describing the troubled places. Claude seeks to escape from his Chicago home and redefine himself at a college far away from what he’s known to this time in his life. Bump gives us an Everyman story of struggle and hope, filled with well-developed characters. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Everywhere You Don’t Belong from amazon.com.
Fathers. Try to take a break during those few moments while reading S.A. Cosby’s novel titled, Razorblade Tears, when the tension pauses. Catch your breath, smile at the finely written prose, and then get back to the story. Two ex-cons team up to track down whoever killed their sons. The complex characters are well developed in this story, and Cosby explores violence, prejudice, and love with great insight and skill. Fans of crime fiction will love this story and may well end up quoting some lines from Cosby that are just plain superb. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase Razorblade Tears from amazon.com.
Hamburg. Fans of thrilling plots are those readers most likely to enjoy Dan Fesperman’s novel titled, The Cover Wife. Set in Hamburg in 1999, this is a fictional take on the terrorist cell that a few years later participated in the 9/11 attacks. Protagonist Claire Saylor is a CIA agent who is sent undercover to try to find out what the terrorists are up to. We observe Clair’s incredulity at her assignment, and we come to appreciate how frustrating life as a spy can be. Character development takes second place to plot momentum. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Cover Wife from amazon.com.
Monday, December 6, 2021
Separations. Linda Rui Feng’s debut novel titled, Swimming Back to Trout River, uses the backdrop of the Cultural Revolution in China to pull readers into the stories of three generations in a family separated by the upheavals in society. Feng pulls readers into caring for each member of this family. Momo leaves wife, Cassia, and daughter, Junie, to stay with his parents in the small town where he was raised while he heads to American for a better life. Cassie also separates from Junie and her in-laws as she, too, leaves for America. A musician named Dawn from Momo’s college days has also moved to the United States. Feng explores all these separations, the trauma and pain, with insight and understanding. The result is a finely told story that will resonate in special ways for all immigrants. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Swimming Back to Trout River from amazon.com.
Confinement. Two time periods and two characters link in the finely written novel by Sunjeev Sahota titled, China Room. We meet Mehar in 1929 as a young bride in Punjab, confined with two other brides, who were wed to three brothers in a single ceremony. Around them, the Indian independence movement searches for recruits. Seventy years later in the same Punjab setting, we meet Mehar’s great-grandson sent here from England to recover from drug addiction. Sahota explores all the tension between individuals and those with power over them. Fans of literary fiction are those readers most likely to enjoy the finely written prose and the deft exploration of human resistance and resiliency. Readers who just like a good story will find one here that’s memorable and well-told. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase China Room from amazon.com.
Generations. I found more threads of unresolved thought as I kept reading Teresa K. Miller’s poems in a collection titled, Borderline Fortune. I began to think about what we owe our parents and grandparents, and what we have inherited from them, for better and for worse. I think of the changes to places across generations and whether our course is toward healing or disaster. I think about restoring ravaged land and doing something to heal the planet. I observe extinction and grieve loss. If the stimulation of thinking is why you read poetry, be sure to explore this finely written collection. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Borderline Fortune from amazon.com.
Trauma. In his novel titled, A Passage North, Anuk Arudpragsam explores life in Sri Lanka after three decades of civil war. Through finely written prose we are absorbed into the atmosphere of the setting, influenced by the trauma and suffering of the characters, and see everyday life transformed. One aspect of this novel comes across as a love song to people and places, while another reveals grief for what those people and places have experienced. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase A Passage North from amazon.com.
Immortal. Readers can approach Natashia Deón’s novel titled, The Perishing, from a variety of perspectives. For those who enjoy historical fiction, this novel brings to life 1930s Los Angeles. Readers who enjoy science fiction elements will enjoy how a character who is immortal ties together the past, the present, and the future. And those readers who can’t read enough about strong Black female characters, this novel will be a perfect fit. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Perishing from amazon.com.
Mortality. Ever since she won the 2020 Nobel Prize in Literature, I’ve been meaning to read Louise Glück’s poetry. I finally took the time to do that in the form of her new collection titled, Winter Recipes from the Collective. This collection did exactly what I want poetry to do for me. I slowed down and listened. The images launched me toward deeper thoughts about important stuff. Throughout this collection, I was drawn into the fragility and vulnerability of life, our certain mortality, and the uncertainty we feel about the changes we know we will face. If you’re ready for some intensity and seriousness, consider reading these finely crafted poems. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Winter Recipes from the Collective from amazon.com.
China. Just because you’ve enjoyed reading Ken Follett’s historical fiction, it doesn’t mean you’ll like his take on contemporary global affairs in his eight-hundred-page novel titled, Never. The plot mix involves Islamic terrorists, North Korean misbehavior, and escalating tension between the United States and China. While the plot is thrilling and will engage most readers, the characters are rarely complex and the size of the novel means spending a lot of reading time with shallow individuals. Readers who like a thrilling plot and are patient with incomplete character development are those most likely to enjoy this novel. Rating: Three-star (It’s ok) Click here to purchase Never from amazon.com.
Colony. Fans of literary fiction have a feast waiting in the form of Gary Shteyngart’s novel titled, Our Country Friends. The ingredients involve the backdrop of the pandemic, a rural setting in the Hudson River Valley, a cast of eight eclectic characters, all shaken and stirred as they gather for six months of close living. We enjoy the funny and sad, the sweet and sour side by side. Perhaps it is too soon to stand back from our pandemic isolation and precautions to revisit our recent experience, but Shteyngart’s fine writing offsets any concerns about a topic that’s still raw and fresh. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Our Country Friends from amazon.com.
Characters. I enjoyed reading Kevin Barry’s short story collection titled, That Old Country Music, for two reasons. First, Barry’s prose uses finely crafted language and when there’s dialogue, it always suits the character and situation, thereby bringing the story to life. Second, within the efficient structure of the short story, Barry finds ways to present complex and interesting characters, full of the nuance and inconsistency we find in people we know. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase That Old Country Music from amazon.com.
Peace. Fans of thrillers may enjoy Flynn Berry’s novel titled, Northern Spy, because of the fast-paced plot action. Beneath the tension and conflict that provide the backdrop for the novel, there’s an underlying hunger for peace. Berry develops the characters in ways that readers quickly appreciate the familiar humanity in which every person makes compromises and finds a space for love, especially within families. On one page, we are caught up in the turmoil of espionage, while on another, we observe the nurturing of a child. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Northern Spy from amazon.com.