Saturday, March 17, 2018


I didn't like this novel at all at first. Its central character is a 7-year-old girl who is unbelievably precocious and clever, too cutesy for words. The narration is third person, yet the entire book is written in the same tone as that used for the dialog of the girl.

But then I was sucked in and became invested in the characters and the plot, as unlikely as they are. Since the story is laced with fantastical tales told to the girl by her grandmother, the fantastical plot elements become more acceptable. As it turns out, fiction and fact are often closer than one would think.

The plot: On her deathbed, a wildly eccentric grandmother charges her granddaughter to find and deliver letters of apology to those the grandmother has wronged. As the quest proceeds, the girl learns to understand familiar people whom she only thought she knew.

This novel is heart-warming and often tear-worthy. It is, in fact, obviously and extremely manipulative. I equate it in my mind to watching the movie Beaches. I laughed, I cried, I was riveted. And afterwards I felt silly for letting my emotions overwhelm my brain.

I believe the main goal of fiction should be to help readers understand the world and the people in it. This type of feel-good book presents a less-than-realistic view of the world, yet it has its place. When life feels overwhelming, read this book to escape to a world where happily-ever-after can happen.

Monday, March 12, 2018



I had never read this Russian classic before. I expected it to be depressing and filled with characters behaving in bizarre ways, similar to the writings of Dostoevsky, Turgenev's contemporary. Surprisingly, this is instead a penetrating examination of the generation gap in two families, filled with realistic conversations and interactions. True, the novel does feature an untimely death, but it is not depressing as a whole, only sad for the potential lost.

One of the main characters is a young man who considers himself a nihilist, one who finds nothing to approve of in established society. The interesting thing about this is that the revolutionaries of the time saw the book as a criticism of their movement, and the right of the time saw the book as a glorification of nihilism. Turgenev reportedly had not intended the book to be political at all. Perhaps the lesson we can learn here is not to read too much into a book, but to take it at face value.

Recommended for its insights into family dynamics.


I chose this book because I am currently watching the series on television. Contrary to the usual with an adaptation of a novel, in this case the filmed version is actually more intriguing.

The plot follows a psychiatrist in 1896 New York City who is pioneering in the art of criminal profiling. Along with a group of subordinates, he attempts to find the vicious killer who is targeting young boy cross-dressing prostitutes. It is similar to a plot of the television show Criminal Minds, except that it moves m-u-c-h slower and without the drama. In fact, it becomes tedious at times, filled with lengthy conversations about the investigations conducted and the conclusions reached. Despite the adventurous-sounding premise, it is not very exciting at all.

The author does provide an interesting look at the grimy underworld and glittering society world of that time and place.

I give this "thriller" a B-.


This popular novel has an interesting premise: In the middle of World War II, a Jewish aerialist finds refuge by performing under an assumed name, harbored by a non-Jewish circus owner; meanwhile, a teenage girl is cast out of her Dutch family because of her affair with a German officer and is also sheltered at the circus. To further complicate matters, the Dutch girl brings with her a Jewish baby which she rescued from extermination. When the circus travels to Nazi-occupied France, they all face the danger of detection.

Unfortunately, the plot is filled with so many implausibilities and so lacking in coherent character development that it becomes unbelievable.

I give this a B+, for its core plot, but a C for its execution.


This Young Adult fantasy novel reads like a blend of Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, and a PG-rated romance novel. The plot includes a malevolent force awakening in the land (LOTR), a ruling family scheming for power (GoT), and two sexy (but non-explicit) love stories (countless YA romance novels). And magic. And giant fighting birds. And fierce horseback fighters. Sorry, no dragons.

This was completely unsuitable for my 12-year-old grandson, for whom I bought it. My teenage granddaughters would not like it either, I don't think, because they are not fantasy fans. It is #6 of the best selling Throne of Glass series, which I did not realize when I bought it. The author does do a good job of catching the reader up on the story without using long background exposition.

This novel is well done for what it is -- a copy of more successful efforts. Recommended for 14 and above.


In 1900, a "storm of the century" hurricane almost wiped Galveston, Texas, from the map. The U.S. Weather Service meteorologist stationed in Galveston at the time was Isaac Cline. This is the non-fiction account of Isaac and the storm.

Author Erik Larson is well known for his novelistic approach to non-fiction, particularly for his award-winning The Devil in the White City. Isaac's Storm lacks the suspense and drama of that effort; nevertheless, it is particularly relevant in this year of multiple monster storms. When man confronts nature, nature almost always wins, despite the sophistication of scientific knowledge.

Of course, Texans will find this particularly interesting.


Four men go on a road trip to scatter the ashes of their dead friend, each one with differing memories of his life and their experiences together. Narrating in revolving chapters, the main characters reveal secrets and old grievances.

This is novel about ordinary people with everyday drama in their lives. Its plot would not seem to be enough to carry a whole novel, but it does because it is so well written.

Last Orders is extraordinary. It was awarded England's Booker Prize in 1996.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018


I could cite many reasons not to like this novel, and yet I liked it anyway -- very much.

The "hero" is a 40-something, overweight, alcohol guzzling, chain smoking looser who spends his days at a low level assembly line job and his nights in a bar drinking and watching TV. He doesn't have a girl friend; in fact, he has no friends at all. Then his parents are both killed in an automobile accident and in the very same week he learns that his long-lost sister has also died. Talk about a falling-down life. It's hard to imagine this man as the central character in a novel.

Then he impulsively jumps on his childhood bicycle and embarks on a cross-country ride from Rhode Island to California to claim his sister's body. Along the way, he meets many unusual people -- some who help him and some who try to kill him. Some of these encounters, but not all, are humorous. All are a bit unbelievable.

But most unbelievable of all is the fact that a grossly overweight man could manage to ride even ten miles, especially on a decades-old one-speed bike. Or that a junk-food glutton, drunkard, and heavy smoker could give up all his addictions cold turkey with no problem. The reader must suspend disbelief and go with the flow or perceive the journey as metaphorical.

Along the way our hero also finds himself, or rather, the person he used to be before the stresses of a dysfunctional family and a schizophrenic sister changed him.

So I was able to ignore all the lapses in logic in the plot and the annoying habits of the hero, and feel the warmth and sympathy that the author has for his character. Life is hard, for some harder than for others, and sometimes it defeats us, but not always.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018


George Washington often gave credit to Providence for the success of the American Revolution and for the survival of the fledgling United States. Whether by "providence" he meant good fortune or God is sometimes unclear, but it is clear that it was indeed providential that America had George Washington as its first leader. His honesty, dignity, fair-mindedness, apparent lack of personal ambition for aggrandizement, and unfailing dedication to the concept of a democratic union kept the American Revolution from devolving into the chaos following the French Revolution or the elevation of a despot following the Russian Revolution. This very fine biography of our first president presents Washington as a man not without faults but as the perfect man for that crucial time and place.

Washington was not the greatest of generals; he made mistakes and miscalculations and the victory at Yorktown could not have occurred without the help of the French, but he accomplished something nobody else could have -- he held a ragtag army together through harsh winters and insufficient provisions to keep the cause alive. He was not the supreme intellect of the Founding Fathers, but he was apparently the supreme in terms of character.

Here are a few things I learned from reading this biography (which all well-educated people probably already know):

*Relatively few actual battles took place, with relatively few casualties, especially in contrast to the Civil War.
*Rather than enriching himself through his position of power, Washington almost bankrupted himself by accepting the presidency.
*Although he was a slave holder (as were most of the Founding Fathers), Washington always realized the injustice and freed his slaves in his will.
*I already knew that Thomas Jefferson was a two-faced snake of the first order, but I did not previously know that James Madison was almost as bad.

Author Ron Chenow writes in a very readable and graceful style, but I must warn that this biography is very long -- 800+ pages. It took me two weeks to finish this, reading three or four hours a day. It is well researched, and does not make too much use of assumptions by the author as to the intentions and thoughts of the subject, as I have found that some biographers do.

Washington, A Life was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Biography in 2011.

Thursday, February 15, 2018


I chose to read about Andrew Jackson because he appears to be President Trump's most admired predecessor. Now I can see why. Jackson, like Trump, represented himself as a populist. He championed the common man rather than the aristocracy. However, he seems to have been sincere in his belief that he represented the will of the people, while Trump's actions in office do not appear to be compatible with his campaign promise to "drain the swamp." I suspect that Trump also shares Jackson's opinion that the President (because he is elected by the people as leader) should have more power than the Supreme Court and even Congress.

Jackson was a war hero (as an Indian fighter and at the Battle of New Orleans during the War of 1812), which accounted for his popularity. During his presidency, he prevented South Carolina from seceding from the Union, dismantled the Second Bank of the U.S., and paid off the national debt. Those were the most positive actions. On the negative side, he favored the extension of slavery to new states and sponsored the Indian Removal Act, which led to the infamous Trail of Tears.

He was no stranger to scandal, primarily because he and his wife Rachel were "married" before her divorce from her first husband was finalized. He was a man of violent temper, and fought duels, in one of which he killed his adversary.

From searching the internet, I found this biography of Jackson to be the most universally acclaimed. It seems to me to be slanted to a more favorable viewpoint. For example, Remini indicates that Jackson actually believed that he was "saving" the Native Americans by forcing them to remove from their lands, because they would thus be removed from the conflict with new settlers, and that he did not foresee that the removal would cause hardship. I don't buy it. I think he just didn't care, because he favored the fortunes of Anglo Americans.

I have found it highly instructive to learn more American history by reading presidential biographies. However, I believe I made a mistake by not starting with Washington and reading about the presidents in order. That would give me a more coherent picture of how we came to be the country we are today. So I will start over. Maybe I will live long enough to complete the list, ending with the Democratic president elected after Donald Trump.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018


After reading eleven acclaimed 2017 novels, all of which involved current political/social issues, it was a relief to read a book purely for its entertainment value. This is by no means a masterpiece or destined to become a classic (except perhaps a cult classic for geeks), but it is great fun to read, especially for someone who is or has been involved in video gaming (not me) or who experienced '80's pop culture first-hand (me). It is fast moving, suspenseful, and hard to put down.

Wade is an eighteen-year-old living in a trailer park who spends most of his waking hours on-line in the virtual world Oasis. When the video game designer responsible for creating Oasis dies and stipulates in his will that his vast fortune will be inherited by the first to find the "Easter egg" hidden in the Oasis universe, Wade becomes one of the millions who try to solve the three riddles leading to the prize. Since the Oasis creator was well-known as having a love for all things from the 1980s, Wade has long immersed himself in the pinball and video games, music, movies, and television of the era, which is the key to his becoming the first to solve the beginning riddle.

Soon Wade, operating as his avatar Parzival, and his on-line friends (whom he has never seen in person) are in a dangerous race with IOI, a global communications conglomerate, to solve the remaining riddles and win the fortune and gain control of Oasis. IOI is a formidable foe because it has means and manpower to track down the real-life people hiding behind on-screen avatars. The quest becomes more than a computer game.

All of this is set in a dystopian world only slightly in the future, but all of the many problems are only mentioned in passing, mainly used as the reason why so many people, especially the youth, spend most of their time in the virtual world of Oasis. The focus is on the quest adventure and on an endless stream of '80s pop-culture references. Cline even throws in a little teen romance.

I am a bit puzzled as to the intended audience for this novel. Its tone and reading level would place it in the Young Adult category, but its concentration on '80s trivia would be of most interest to those 40+ who experienced those years. I enjoyed it immensely. I bought it, at her request, for my 14-year-old granddaughter. I will be interested to see how she likes it.


A movie, which from the trailer seems geared to teenagers, is coming soon.

Thursday, February 1, 2018


This novel would have been so much better if it had not been built on stereotypes and filled with implausibility, not to mention impossibility. In addition, large sections were devoted to expository material explaining the motivations and actions of the characters, which became awkward in the extreme. All that being said, it is an entertaining take on the precarious relationship of mothers to their teenage daughters and a thought-provoking examination of the cultural divide between those with differing philosophies of life. The side story of a custody fight for a Chinese baby adopted into an Anglo family seemed to be tacked on for its current political relevance and could have been left out of the story entirely.

The Richardson family lives a privileged lifestyle in a perfectly ordered community where everyone (almost everyone) follows the rules. The father is a successful lawyer; the mother reports local news for a second-tier newspaper. Their four children are all in high school and could have come straight out of The Breakfast Club: a handsome jock, a beautiful prom queen, an introverted nerd, and a rebel who rejects their "perfect" life. When they rent out an apartment to free-spirited Mia Warren and her teenage daughter Pearl, their well-ordered existence begins to crumble.

Here's where all the unlikely plot developments enter in. Even though Pearl lacks self confidence and wears thrift-store clothing, she becomes the best of friends with the wealthy Richardson teens. To detail all the improbabilities would be to reveal much of the rest of the story, so I will refrain. Suffice it to say that a reader must necessarily suspend disbelief to enjoy reading the novel.

Nevertheless, I am sure most would find Little Fires Everywhere interesting. I believe it might be a book club natural. It was named a Best Book of the Year by several publications.