While Google and Facebook have siphoned ad dollars away from all publishers, local news publishers have been the hardest hit. The tech giants suck up 77% of the digital advertising revenue in local markets, compared to 58% on a national level, according to estimates from Borrell Associates and eMarketer.

The Wall Street Journal

Incompetence in Chernobyl

Midnight in Chernobyl book cover

I’m about a third of the way into Midnight in Chernobyl, an account of the 1986 nuclear accident. It’s shocking to read about the number of institutional and design errors that led to the event and then about the missteps in reacting to it.

Even before Chernobyl the Soviets had a history of accidents and meltdowns at their reactors. There was even a prior meltdown at one of the Chernobyl reactors you probably didn’t know about due to layers of Soviet secrecy.

The first sign in the west of an accident was when workers reporting to a Swedish nuclear power plant started setting of radiation alarms when entering the facility because they had picked up so much Chernobyl radiation from the landscape.

In contrast to Chernobyl, the Swedish authorities immediately alerted the nearby town and ordered a facility evacuation. The type and amount of radiation made them think it was their plant leaking. They soon new better.

Review: The Light Years

Chris Rush began doing drugs at the age of 12 when his sister’s friend gave him acid. This began his long embrace of the American counterculture of the 1960s and ’70s, which Rush recalls in his poignant memoir The Light Years.

The son of a wealthy, Roman Catholic New Jersey couple, Rush was prone as a boy to running through his neighborhood in a pink satin cape. He was eventually ostracized from his family because of his father’s hostile attitude toward Rush’s behaviour and mannerisms.

Rush spent time in a series of boarding schools and then fled out west for a number of risky adventures, eventually landing in the Arizona wilderness. During this time he better came to understand his own sexuality as a young gay man. His parents were largely indifferent to his activities while he was away. They were always more focused on their own lives and troubled marriage.

Rush, a renowned artist whose work appears in many museum collections, has written a masterful coming of age story. The Light Years (digital galley, Farrar, Straus and Giroux) paints a vivid picture of a young man searching for his place in the world. Rush shows remarkable grace in recalling a trying adolescence that would have broken many individuals.

Review: Beginning Pen & Ink

If you’re looking for a little push to get started with drawing with pens, Portfolio: Beginning Pen & Ink (digital galley, Quarto Publishing Group) is a good place to start. The book does not get bogged down in descriptions of equipment, as some art books do. It covers those basics quickly and moves on to instruction.

Make no mistake, this is a book geared to beginners. It moves at a pace suitable for those getting started, as I am. Author and artist Desarae Lee gives specific and achievable instructions that clearly explain the concepts. And the exercises that accompany each chapter helped improve my understanding of the drawing techniques.

At 128 pages, the book is short and quick to get through. Anything longer might overwhelm anyone just getting started. I felt like Portfolio: Beginning Pen & Ink gave me a good starting point from which to practice before moving on to more advanced instruction.

Review: The Wolf and the Watchman

Following a night of heavy drinking, one-armed night watchman Mikel Cardell is rousted to fish a limb-less body from a putrid Stockholm lake. Set in 1793, The Wolf and the Watchman pairs Cardell with incorruptible investigator Cecil Winge, who is on the verge of death from consumption.

The investigation quickly leads through the dangerous underworld of Stockholm to the possibly more treacherous secret world of the ruling noble families. But Winge is not swayed by intimidation, due to his pending death, and refuses to back down from either ruffians or the wealthy.

The Wolf and the Watchman (digital galley, Simon and Schuster) is an engrossing detective story that brings to life a faraway time and place. The historical setting and the story’s many memorable characters add a rich depth to Niklas Natt och Dag’s first novel.

Review: The River

A pair of college friends set out on a canoe trip on a remote Canadian river planning to bond over fishing, books and their love of outdoors. But they quickly find themselves in a desperate and brutal bid to survive the wilderness in Peter Hiller’s The River.

Wynn and Jack knew there would be certain risks associated with canoeing on an isolated river, but a huge wildfire they spot raging in the distance changes their itinerary and they try to make a quick exit north to Hudson Bay. Along the way they hear a man and woman arguing in the fog and when the man turns up later, alone, their trip takes another, more desperate turn.

Hiller is author of the best-selling and masterful, post-apocalyptic thriller The Dog Stars. In The River (digital galley, Knopf), Hiller shows his talent at combining raw adventure with poetic and insightful writing. His novels ooze with humanity and he seems to capture perfectly the emotions and unique responses people have to adversity.

Review: Territory of Light

A young, newly single woman struggles to raise her three-year-old daughter in Tokyo in Yūko Tsushima’s Territory of Light, an empathetic and compelling look at single motherhood.

Following a break with her husband, the nameless narrator was not prepared to be on her own and at times is not up to the task. She struggles with work, raising her child, her temper, alcohol and managing basic home chores. Through it all she begins to question her own goals and her qualities as a mother. But, though she may not realize it, during this first year of being alone she is rebuilding the foundation of her life.

Originally written as 12 serialized stories for a Japanese magazine in 1978 and ’79, and now translated to English by Geraldine Harcourt, the novella Territory of Light (digital galley, Farrar, Straus and Giroux) moves at a leisurely pace, often revisiting the same themes. But the vignettes blend nicely together and the repeating themes add a sort of elegant, poetic structure to the story.

Review: The Plotters

In The Plotters, groups of assassins do the dirty work of mysterious criminal masterminds. When one assassin, Reseng, takes liberties on a couple of assignments, he disrupts the carefully crafted plans of one anonymous “plotter” and puts his own life at risk.

Hailed as an example of Korean noir, Un-su Kim’s The Plotters has received glowing reviews and promised everything I might like in a thriller: Dark humor, mystery, action and beautiful writing. The book opens with a touching and brilliantly written chapter following Reseng on an assignment. But beyond the captivating opening, the novel wavered.

While The Plotters (digital galley, Doubleday) is full of well written and moody scenes, the story unfolds in a slow and haphazard manner and it takes more than half of the book for some major characters to be introduced. Unfortunately it isn’t until then, a little too late, that we begin to understand where the plot is going.

Review: The Dreamers

It all starts with one college student falling asleep and not waking up. But the sleeping sickness quickly spreads through a small California town in Karen Thompson Walker’s unique and authentic dystopian thriller The Dreamers.

As the story progresses the reaction of the characters feels frighteningly real. People panic in a grocery store, but still have time for helpful gestures; business men and women trapped in the town wander aimlessly and are thankful for a helping hand; a father goes to great lengths to protect his newborn child and college students first panic and then volunteer to assist with the sick.

If you’ve ever wondered how you might react in a crisis, you’re likely to find some version of yourself among the characters in this novel. The Dreamers (digital galley, Random House) is a refreshing and exhilarating addition to disaster fiction.

Review: An Orchestra of Minorities

Nigerian poultry farmer Chinonso risks his livelihood and undertakes an imprudent journey in a bid to impress the family of the woman he loves in An Orchestra of Minorities by Chigozie Obioma.

Young Chinonso’s life heads in a new and seemingly wonderful direction after a chance encounter one night with Ndali, an educated young woman from an influential family. Chinonso and Ndali quickly fall in love, but he believes he must return to school in order to become her social equal. After selling everything he owns to go to college in Cyprus, Chinonso immediately falls prey to a con-man and everything he had planned comes undone.

Narrated by Chinonso’s chi, or guardian spirit, An Orchestra of Minorities (digital galley, Little, Brown and Company) is an ambitious and spiritual tale that traces Chinonso’s journey from elation to bitterness and finally something close to surrender as he undertakes the long journey to return to Nigeria and Ndali.

Review: She Lies in Wait

Thirty years after going missing while on a camping trip with five other teenagers, a young girl’s body is discovered buried with a drug cache. What was a decades-old missing persons case has turned into a murder investigation in Gytha Lodge’s She Lies in Wait.

The story is told in alternating timelines, following the current investigation and revisiting the events that happened to each of the 6 teenagers during the camping trip. The problem with alternating timelines is they often disrupt continuity in narratives and it does so here. Jumping back and forth in time between so many characters made it hard for the story to gain any momentum.

Unfortunately, besides the victim in She Lies in Wait (digital galley, Random House), it was difficult to become invested in any one character and the resolution to the mystery, when it came, felt anticlimactic.

Review: World’s Best Whiskeys

Dominic Roskrow’s World’s Best Whiskies is an exceptional example of what a guide to spirits should be. The book is a comprehensive overview of the many types of whiskies available around the world and includes reviews of 750 spirits.

Roskrow looks at each of the major whisky-producing regions of the world and gives a brief and informed history of each, as well as explaining what makes each region special. He then follows up with extensive reviews of spirits that range from those commonly found on store shelves to rare finds.

World’s Best Whiskies (digital galley, Quarto Publishing Group) will help anyone, from those new to whisky to connoisseurs, better appreciate what they are drinking. And most importantly it will help everyone make informed choices about what to buy.

I originally read a digital review copy of the book but have since purchased a hardback for my shelf as it’s the single best whisky guide I’ve seen. Get one for yourself or as a gift for the whisky-lover in your life.

Review: Lessons From Lucy

Pulitzer Prize-winning humorist Dave Barry is back with a collection of stories related to life advice learned from his beloved dog, Lucy. In Lessons From Lucy Barry ties stories from his life to something he learned from his aging dog, such as “make new friends.”

Lessons From Lucy (digital galley, Simon & Schuster) contains Barry’s familiar dry and self-deprecating humor, but the connections between his stories and the dog advice are flimsy at best. The life lessons are trite (“don’t stop having fun”) and seem like a gimmick to pull together this collection of anecdotes.

Unfortunately, as someone who has read and enjoyed a lot of Barry over the years, the stories related in this volume seem stale and recycled. Instead pick up an older Barry collection, or David Sedaris’ recent Calypso if you’re looking for laugh-inducing humor. Lessons From Lucy will be released April 2, 2019.


Very short reviews of books

A roundup of books I read in November. Haruki Murakami’s Killing Commendatore and Stephen Markley’s Ohio were the two best books of the month. In fact, those are the only two books I would definitely recommend. Unless you’re an aspiring diarist, in which case you should read Writing Down the Bones.

Killing Commendatore: The plots of Haruki Murakami novels are always difficult to describe. In his latest epic work, the physical manifestation of an idea appears to guide a portrait painter through a life altering journey. Really, all that needs saying is you should read this novel by one of our best living authors. (5/5 stars.)

Ohio: A powerful debut novel by Stephen Markley that revolves around  four former high school classmates meeting in a small Ohio town. The story touches on the effects the opioid crisis and ongoing wars has had on a generation. Beautifully written. (5/5 stars.)

Writing Down the Bones: First published in 1986 this writing guide by Natalie Goldberg could be read as a daily devotional. It mixes Zen philosophy with solid writing advice for those who want to establish a daily practice. (5/5 stars.)

The Collapsing Empire: The first in a series by John Scalzi this book traces the pending collapse of humanity. Trading colonies have settled across the galaxy but trouble arises when the extra-dimensional Flow used to travel and across great distances, becomes unstable. (4/5 stars.)

How it Happened: An FBI agent puts his career on the line as he tries to find the truth in a story told by an unreliable witness. I want to call this a good beach read, but as it’s December it would make a good fireside read. (4/5 stars.)

Stag’s Leap: Poems: Following a divorce, Sharon Olds writes poems of grieving and healing. She won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for this collection. (4/5 stars.)

M Train: While not as powerful as her autobiography Just Kids, this collection of Patti Smith essays follows Patti Smith as she visits as series of coffee houses around the world. It reads as a series of journal entries, which I find appealing. (4/5 stars.)

When the Pipirite Sings: This English translation of poems by Haitian writer and doctor Jean Métellus. The poems use powerful and at times vivid language to deal with themes ranging from colonial oppression to Haitian spiritual and cultural identity. But make no mistake, these poems have a high specific gravity and can be slow to get through. (3/5 stars.) Read full review

Elevation: As a Stephen King fan I found little to be excited about in this very short and thinly plotted story about a man dealing with extreme weight loss while trying to make peace with a lesbian couple living next door. Surprisingly this novella won the 2018 Goodreads Choice Awards for horror. It’s especially surprising because this is not a horror book. (3/5 stars.)