Very short reviews of books

A roundup of brief reviews of books I read in October. Virgil Wander will probably make it to best books of 2018 list.

Virgil WanderThis appealing novel mixes offbeat characters and nostalgic settings with some dark themes as a man struggles to recover from a serious car accident in a town plagued by tragedy. (5/5 stars.) Read my full review.

Virgil WanderThis appealing novel mixes offbeat characters and nostalgic settings with some dark themes as a man struggles to recover from a serious car accident in a town plagued by tragedy. (5/5 stars.) Read my full review.

American Pastoral: On the surface legendary high school athlete Seymour “Swede” Levov appears to be a simple, if boring man. But Philip Roth slowly reveals the many layers of the Swede’s rather stormy life in this look at 1960s America. (4/5 stars.)

The Frolic of the Beasts:  A student is driven to an impulsive act of violence that forms the bond of an unusual love triangle in this translation of a 1961 Japanese classic. (4/5 stars.) Read my full review.

Rogue Protocol: Book three in The Murderbot Diaries series follows the gloomy protagonist robot as he continues to intervene in human affairs, despite a desire to just be left alone. (4/5 stars.)

Bridge of ClayThe long awaited follow up from The Book Thief author Markus Zusak is a disappointing and slightly muddled novel that jumps awkwardly back and forth in time to tell the story of five brothers growing up in Australia. (3/5 stars.)

Review: The Frolic of the Beasts

When a young Japanese student falls into the orbit of a beautiful woman and her husband, he is driven to an act of violence that unites the three in a corrupt love triangle fueled by desire and repentance. And that one impulsive act relentlessly leads to more brutality in the poetically written novel The Frolic of the Beasts.

This novel by Yukio Mashima was first published in Japan in 1961 and has now received its first English translation. Mishima is considered to be one of the most important avant-garde Japanese authors of the 20th century, having written a number of novels, plays and poems.

In The Frolic of the Beast (digital galley, Penguin Classics) Mishima explores the unusual psychological bonds that hold the three main characters together and hints at the disturbing power lust has to influence individuals.

Review: Virgil Wander

Despite some dark themes, Virgil Wander (digital galley, Grove Atlantic) is a remarkably humorous, feel-good novel. Virgil, the title character, is the owner of a one-screen movie theater in a struggling Lake Superior town who is dealing with the mental after effects of a serious, and spectacular, car accident.

The town of Greenstone is inhabited by several offbeat, yet agreeable characters who help Virgil as he gets back on his feet. But Greenstone is also a town plagued by tragedy, and central to the story is the mystery of a missing minor league baseball player, a friend of Virgils.

This strangely appealing novel is author Leif Enger’s first in ten years, since his well received Peace Like a River. The story if full of midwestern nostalgia and wonderful subplots, such as a vengeful quest for a giant fish and the towns compulsive attraction to an out-of-town kite flyer. It would be hard to ask for more out of a book.

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Very short review of books

A roundup of brief reviews of books I read in September. There were a number of good books from the month and it was heavy on sci-fi. Cherry is among the best books I’ve read this year and one to get you thinking. Fans of funny science fiction should start reading the Murderbot Diaries immediately. 

Cherry: This, one of the best novels of the year, is a fictionalized version of the author’s life. It’s an engaging, depressing, quick moving story of a tour of duty in Iraq, PTSD, heroin abuse and bank robberies. I’m not sure that you’re supposed to like the unnamed main character, but it’s certainly possible.  (5/5 stars.)

Infinite: What would you do if you faced immortality as the sole survivor of a faster-than-light spaceship? This suspenseful sci-fi story touches on topics as diverse as ethics and game design as it offers one possible answer to that question.  (5/5 stars.)

All Systems Red: Book one in the Murderbot Diaries is a quick and fun thriller told from the point of view of a gloomy and sarcastic robot trying to help a science team survive on a remote planet. (5/5 stars.)

Artificial Condition: Book two in the Murderbot Diaries follows our sarcastic robot as it tries to unravel a secret from its past.  (5/5 stars.)

Fear the Survivors: Book two of the Fear Saga follows humanities efforts to prepare for an alien invasion while fending of an elite robotic advance team sent soften Earth’s defenses. This one is better than the first book in the series, which itself was good. (4/5 stars.)

The Last Cowboys: I thought this would be about life on the ranch. It’s more about life on the rodeo circuit. But a topic new to me and very well written. A search on Goodreads for “The Last Cowboys” returns 54 results. Will the real last cowboy please stand up. (4/5 stars.)

The Incendiaries: A tragic love story revolves around the activities of a terror cult. This book didn’t really work for me.  (3.5/5 stars.)

Boomer1: An over educated, under employed academic rants about the job market, spawning a mini-revolution among Millennials. This novel might have been timely for a brief period, but that period has passed. (3/5 stars.) Read my full review.

The Singularity Trap: The latest by Dennis E. Taylor failed to engage me. Read his hilarious and very original Bobiverse trilogy instead. (3/5 stars.)

Review: Boomer1

Mark Brumfeld is over educated, under employed, in debt and living in his parents basement. He finds himself there after his girlfriend, Cassie, rejects his marriage proposal and his job prospects in New York dry up.

In the novel Boomer1, Mark is desperate and resentful as he launches a series of YouTube rants against aging Baby Boomers who won’t let go of their jobs so Millennials can have them. His missives touch a nerve and a movement begins that grows out of Mark’s control, eventually embroiling him with law enforcement.

The plot in Boomer1 by Daniel Torday (digital galley, St. Martin’s Press) jumps between the views of Mark, his ex-girlfriend who is finding success in new media and his mother who is suffering from hearing loss. The chapters devoted to his mother and his ex-girlfriend are the most compelling and authentic of the book and their stories alone would have made for a better novel.

Boomer1 feels like it might have been timely for a brief period, but that period has passed. Mark’s YouTube rants ring hollow in the current climate of low unemployment. And some of the more interesting and timely issues raised in the novel, such as excessive student debt and the ethics of new media are not touched on in a meaningful way. 

Very short reviews of books

A roundup of brief reviews of books I read in August. Looking back it was a good month. Depending on where your tastes lie, I’d recommend everything but The Butcher’s Boy. But if I had to pick one, it would be The Line Becomes a River, which is a good look at what happens along our southern border and would be enlightening no matter where your politics are on immigration. 

The Line Becomes A River: Francisco Cantú’s memoir of his years working as a border patrol agent and living along the Mexican border is an honest and timely book on immigration that doesn’t get bogged down with rhetoric and politics. (5/5 stars.)

The Third Hotel: After arriving in Cuba for a film festival, Clare spots her husband standing outside of a museum. The thing is, he most certainly died shortly before the trip. This is a haunting and surreal novel that explores the psychic toll of grief. (5/5 stars.) Read my full review. 

Silence: Two Jesuit priests in seventeenth-century Japan find their faith tested by hostile feudal lords in this classic from 1966. (5/5 stars.)

The Line That Held Us: While trespassing to poach a deer, Darl Moody accidentally kills the brother of a notoriously vicious man. What transpires is like a tale from an earlier time … a brutal frontier story of rash decisions, revenge and salvation. (5/5 stars.) Read my full review.

Darling Days book cover

Darling Days: iO Tillett Wright’s memoir of growing up in gritty New York with a temperamental mother prone to bad behavior.  (4/5 stars.)

Forty Autumns: A moving memoir of a German family that lived on both sides of the Berlin wall during the Cold War. (4/5 stars.)

Brother: A young man in urban Toronto laments for his dead brother in this study on sorrow and survival. (4/5 stars.)

Drink Beer, Think Beer: An approachable homage to independent brewers. (4/5 stars.) Read my full review.

The Last Colony: Book 3 of John Scalzi’s Old Man War series is the best to date and follows retired warriors John Perry and Jane Sagan as try to set up a colony on a new planet while dealing with politics and aliens. (4/5 stars.)

The Butcher’s Boy: An overrated and uninteresting story of a hitman on the run. (2/5 stars.)

Review: The Line That Held Us

While trespassing to poach a deer, Darl Moody accidentally kills the brother of a notoriously vicious man. What transpires is like a tale from an earlier time. Strip the cars and cellphones out of The Line That Held Us and you’re left with a brutal frontier story of rash decisions, revenge and salvation.

This novel by David Joy moves at a rapid pace as the consequences of the shooting reverberate, shaking the lives of an expanding number of people. Joy is masterful at writing about the lives of working class Appalachians, who act out of a need to protect what is important to them.

The Line That Held Us (Digital galley, G.P. Putnam’s Sons) asks the question, “what would you do for love?” It’s not clear until the final pages what the characters will decide and what they are capable of.

Review: The Third Hotel

After arriving in Cuba for a film festival, Clare spots her husband standing outside of a museum. The thing is, he most certainly died shortly before the trip. Clair is bewildered, but determined to track down this doppelganger and have a conversation. 

Laura van den Berg’s dreamy novel The Third Hotel (Digital galley, Farrar, Straus and Giroux) floats between the metaphysical and real worlds, leaving the reader uncertain of where the border lies. The screening of a zombie movie during the festival leads to the intermingling on the streets of Havana of the film’s cast and Claire’s undead husband, toying with horror tropes.

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Review: Drink Beer, Think Beer

Drink Beer, Think Beer review

As Senior Editor of Craft Beer and Brewing Magazine, former editor of All About Beer Magazine, author of a beer cookbook and co-host of a beer podcast, John Holl has spent a lot of time drinking, discussing, writing and thinking about beer. His latest effort, Drink Beer, Think Beer: Getting to the Bottom of Every Pint is an extended homage to modern brewing and its independent producers.

While it’s clear Hull is a lover of  beer, he does not come off as a beer snob. The book makes it clear that craft beer can and should be enjoyed by everyone. “It’s easy to get caught up in the fever of chasing a new, rare, or local beer without stopping to reconsider and appreciate the classics,” writes Hull. “This is time spent worrying about what a beer should be or could be rather than what it is, and when that happens we lose sight of what got us excited about beer in the first place. Each new trip to the bar, each new beer opened, is a chance to break that cycle and to focus on the moment at hand.”

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Very short reviews of books

A roundup of brief reviews of books I read in July. An American Marriage is worthy of the praise it’s received this year and A Terrible Country is an interesting take on live in Putin’s Russia.

An American Marriage: This bold novel takes on marriage, racial injustice and the American dream in a story of a relationship stressed to the breaking point.  (5/5 stars)

A Terrible Country: A compassionate story of a down-on-his-luck American intellectual who goes to Moscow to take care of his ailing grandmother. (5/5 stars)

Visual Intelligence: Sharpen Your Perception, Change Your Life: A guide to improving perception to better understand the world around us. (4/5 stars)

Little Fires Everywhere: This novel examines wealth, privilege and race in a picture-perfect Cleveland suburb. (4/5 stars)

The Ghost Brigades: A solid second entry on John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War series, focuses on a special forces clone created to help stop an attack on humanity. (4/5 stars)

Something in the Water: A couple honeymooning in Bora Bora discovers something while out scuba diving and make a series of dangerous choices in this summer thriller that is slow to start and full of predictable twists. (3/5 stars)

Number One Chinese Restaurant: Family and coworker tensions flare up after a disaster strikes a suburban Chinese restaurant in this novel dominated by subplots. (3/5 stars)

The best new books from the first half of 2018

Here is my list of the best new books from the first half of 2018. I’ve listed them in the order I would most recommend them to someone. But if you’re inclined, read them all.

The Sun Does Shine: In 1985 Anthony Ray Hinton is sent to Alabama’s death row for two murders he didn’t commit. This is his story. But it’s not a blow-by-blow account of the injustices done to him, it’s an extraordinary story of rising above hate and stoically serving as a source of light to those around him on death row. Read full review.

Robin: This intimate biography of Robin Williams tells the story of the meteoric rise, frenetic life and the sad final days of the comedian. Read full review.

An American Marriage: A beautifully written love story of a young couple dealing with the trauma brought on by a terrible injustice.

The Mars Room: This is a brutal, yet empathetic novels examines a life gone sideways, following a young mother given two life sentences in prison. Read full review.

Calypso: David Sedaris deftly handles a variety of topics including  middle age, shopping, gay marriage, language and family tragedy in this achingly funny book. Read full review.

A Terrible Country: A compassionate story of a man who travels to Russia to take care of his ailing grandmother and tries to find fellowship among Moscow’s inhabitants. Read full review.

The Which Way Tree: Set on the Texas frontier during the Civil War, this quick read weaves a story of violence, survival and frontier justice. Read full review.

Feast Days: This eloquent novel by Ian MacKenzie follows an expatriate couple and examines the social norms of Brazil. Read full review.

Friday afternoon coffee reads

A regular roundup of interesting stories to enjoy with your Friday morning afternoon coffee.

  1. Haruki Murakami’s new novel declared ‘indecent’ by Hong Kong censors.
  2. Why are there so many suckers? A neuropsychologist explains.
  3. Every law is violent.
  4. Audience member steps in to save performance of La Boheme at Royal Opera House.
  5. Five grammar mistakes even the best writers make.
  6. Reflecting on 9 years living in China.
  7. Billy Joel may never write another song.
  8. The 50 highest-paid musicians.
  9. Stephen King is going through a cinematic renaissance, thanks to directors who grew up as fans.
  10. Mel Brooks at 92.

Review: A Terrible Country

Andrei Kaplan is coming off of a failed relationship, low on cash and struggling to find an academic job when his brother asks him to do a favor. Kaplan accepts and heads to Russia where he will take care of his ailing grandmother in her Stalin-era, Moscow apartment.

From the start Kaplan finds it difficult to navigate Vladimir Putin’s Russia, where prices are rising and even meager entertainments are out of the reach of his limited budget. But he dutifully looks out for his grandmother and sets out to find fellowship, first on the hockey rink and later among a group of revolutionary leftists who test his beliefs.

Keith Gessen’s A Terrible Country (Digital galley, Viking) is a compassionate story that centers on the relationship of Kaplan and his grandmother, who is suffering from dementia. At times humorous, the novel offers a peek at the competing forces building a new Russia and humanizes the characters who inhabit modern Moscow.