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.

Review: Number One Chinese Restaurant

The characters of Number One Chinese Restaurant all inhabit a planet orbiting the Beijing Duck House. A fire at the suburban Washington, D.C restaurant upends the equilibrium and tensions between family and coworkers come to the surface.

At the center of the novel by Lillian LI are two brothers with different philosophies of life and what it means to be restaurateurs. Thrown into the mix are long-serving restaurant staff and a mobster “uncle” who seems to be pulling strings behind the scenes.

Unfortunately Number One Chinese Restaurant (Digital galley, Henry Holt & Co.) is a book dominated by subplots. The family tensions make for interesting stories, but without a gripping, dominant plot line it was unfortunately not a compelling read.

Friday morning coffee reads

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

  1. The industrial era ended, and so will the digital era.
  2. What I learned as a honeymoon planner for billionaires.
  3. What’s holding Mexico’s economy back.
  4. Should we hide the locations of Earth’s greatest trees?
  5. Wealth and education have made Ireland a better place.
  6. Is Barnes & Noble too big to Fail?
  7. Supreme Court’s ruling on taxes might affect art dealers nationwide.

Very short reviews of books

A round up of brief reviews of books I read in June. David Lynch’s biography Room to Dream and Stephen King’s The Outsider are new to bookstores and worth reading.

The Sun Also Rises: Hemingway’s first novel and one of his best works follows American and British expats traveling from Paris to the bullfights of Pamplona. (5/5 stars.)

Room to Dream: A peek behind the camera to see what drives the visionary director and artist who has delivered a number of memorable films that enthrall and confuse viewers..(4/5 stars.) Read my full review.

The Outsider: What starts as a murder mystery morphs into a familiar Stephen King creep-fest with a bogeyman channeling Pennywise from It. (4/5 stars.)

Angela’s Ashes: I’m late to the game, but Frank McCourt’s memoir of growing up poor in Ireland is as moving as everyone says it is. (4/5 stars.)

A Geek In Japan: A fun, heavily illustrated and informative guide to the unique Japanese culture. (4/5 stars.)

The Stranger in the Woods: A remarkable and revealing story of a man who lived as a hermit in the Maine woods for 27 years. (4/5 stars.)

Old Man’s War: In John Scalzi’s science fiction novel, the elderly are given a chance at rebirth as part of humanity’s interstellar fighting force. (4/5 stars.)

The Art of Map Illustration: Four artists share their techniques for mapmaking as well as samples of their work. While the book is full of beautiful maps, it seems more time is spent describing how to illustrate map embellishments such as trees and buildings.  (3/5 stars.) Read my full review.

Review: Room to Dream

The inscrutable auteur David Lynch has delivered a number of memorable films that enthrall and confuse viewers. In Room to Dream we get to peek behind the camera to see what drives the visionary director and artist.

In this autobiographical work that’s a collaboration between Lynch and Kristine McKenna, the chapters alternate between interviews with more than 100 colleagues, friends and family and Lynch’s own recollections of events. The biography ranges from stories of his growing up in a small western town to the processes that went into creating such iconic works as Eraserhead, The Elephant Man, Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart, Twin Peaks and Mulholland Drive.

Lynch was involved in even the smallest details of each of his works. He would often change directions on a whim if he felt it would serve the story and he was known to pull people from his production crew or even off of the street if he saw a roll for them in a film. Lynch’s colleagues universally laud him as one of the kindest and most giving directors to have worked with. A number of artists interviewed for the book credit Lynch as having given them the chance that kick started their careers.

Other than Dune, Lynch has avoided projects that could be consider big-budget Hollywood movies. Room to Dream (Random House, digital galley) is a refreshing look at someone who has pursued a singular vision and is willing to say “no” when his goals don’t align with financial backers.

Friday morning coffee reads

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

  1. Live Nation rigged an entire concert to measure the biometrics of music fans.
  2. The trouble with Johnny Depp.
  3. Shrines, gardens, 7-Elevens: A Japan journal.
  4. Thousands of Swedes are inserting microchips into themselves – here’s why.
  5. Can Silicon Valley disrupt how we construct buildings?
  6. Exploring the digital ruins of Second Life.
  7. Technology in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.
  8. The uncertain fate of the much-loved puffin.
  9. Where have America’s truck drivers gone?
  10. Spite buildings: When human grudges get architectural.
  11. Bad .Men at .Work. Please don’t .Click.
  12. The physicists watched a clock tick for 14 years straight.

Friday morning coffee reads

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

  1. Virtual reality so good Disney should just buy the whole company.
  2. The politicization of everything.
  3. The “Simpsons” jokes that never quite made it (and a few that barely did).
  4. Behind the scenes at Tokyo’s lost and found center.
  5. A few words to the graduates from David Sedaris.
  6. EU copyright proposal has free speech advocates worried.
  7. Netflix is hiring everybody in and out of Hollywood to make more TV shows than any network ever has. And it already knows which ones you’ll like. Related: How Netflix is trying to make sure its shows don’t get lost.
  8. An extensive investigation of the Grenfell Tower fire.
  9. Does musical paralysis set in at 28?
  10. A list of everything Anthony Bourdain hated.
  11. The wounds of the drone warrior.

Review: The Art of Map Illustration

Four artists share their techniques for mapmaking as well as samples of their work in The Art of Map Illustration. The book is full of beautiful illustrations by each of the artists, who employ a variety of media including pen, ink, watercolor and digital.

There are a number of map-making tips spread throughout the book, but it seems more time is spent describing how to illustrate map embellishments such as trees and buildings. Each of the artists share an almost whimsical style (as seen on the cover) with cartoonish illustrations and that probably accounts for the number of pages devoted to creating and placing those decorative details.

If the style suits you, the The Art of Map Illustration (Quarto Publishing Group, digital galley) is full of samples and would be a good book to reference for inspiration. Although the artists use a variety of media, the book feels a little repetitive because of the similar illustration styles.

Very short reviews of books

David Itzkoff’s compassionate biography of Robin Williams stands out among the books I read in May. David Sedaris’ wickedly humorous collection of essays is also worth picking up.

Robin: This intimate biography of Robin Williams tells the story of the meteoric rise, frenetic life and the sad final days of the comedian.(5/5 stars.) Read my 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. (5/5 stars.) Read my full review.

The Shepherd’s Hut: A crisp story of survival, friendship and the search for peace in a brutal Australian landscape. (4/5 stars.) Read my full review.

Fear the Sky: A  covert team of scientists and soldiers work to undermine the advance team of an alien armada on the way to Earth in this fast-paced sci-fi novel.  (4/5 stars.)

The Paris Wife: Historical fiction written from the point of view of Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley Richardson. Good for Hemingway fans, but so-so pacing. (4/5 stars.)

The Little Paris Bookshop: This love story following a bookseller calling himself the literary apothecary was a little pretentious for my taste. (3/5 stars.)

Warlight: In the aftermath of WWII 14-year-old Nathaniel and his sister are left in the care of a mysterious man they nickname The Moth and his possibly criminal cohorts. An opaque novel that leaves a lot of questions unanswered. (2/5 stars.) Read my full review.