30-Second Book Reviews – Part 2


photo: Carlos Martinez, creative commons license

Recently Published

All the Wicked Girls by Chris Whitaker – An thriller in which real and symbolic dark clouds hover menacingly over a tiny Alabama community. Young girls—young religious girls—are being murdered. When another goes missing, the town’s turned into a tinderbox, and the sheriff is hard put to control the situation. The sheriff, the girl’s twin sister, and a couple of outsider friends are captivating characters. Written from multiple points of view, this is a complex, compelling story.

A Cold Death by Marilyn Meredith – Another in the popular Deputy Tempe Crabtree series. A group of sniping acquaintances is snowbound at a mountain cabin and none too happy about it. Loyalties shift; suspicions rise; accusations cascade. Crabtree also must deal with the ghost of a former resident, and the light touch of paranormal is handled well.

Classics Revisited

Theft: A Love Story by Man Booker prize-winner Peter Carey – In this 2006 novel, a flamboyant Australian artist struggles with a career past its peak, while dealing with his developmentally disabled (but entertainingly astute) younger brother, a conniving girlfriend who is always one step ahead of him, and an unforgiving ex-wife. “Witty, urbane, funny, and profound.”

Our Game by John le Carré – When one of the oldest friends of retired MI6 agent Tim Cranmer goes missing, along with Cranmer’s mistress, he sets out to find them. In this 1995 spy thriller, Cranmer’s bosses try to convince him his Cold War and thus his career are over, but his friend and fellow-spy appears to have identified some new mission, using the £37 million he’s stolen from the Russians to finance it. With this fast-paced, enjoyable read, you’re in the hands of the master.

The Directive by Matthew Quirk – There’s a short window of time between when the U.S. Federal Reserve makes its recommendations and when they’re made public. During that hour or so, they are one of the most closely guarded secrets in the financial world. The Ford brothers want that information, which is worth, well, millions. Clever plotting, persuasive, a fun read from 2014.


A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles – Prepare yourself to fall in love with Count Alexander Rostov, confined after the Revolution to Moscow’s famed hotel, The Metropol. The rich life he builds there never strays from elegance and civility, traits that the new Soviet power-brokers lack utterly. It’s a lovely story, and, as Ann Patchett says, “The book is like a salve.” Great narrator too.

The Lady from Zagreb by Philip Kerr – Kerr’s tenth Bernie Gunther novel, this one has the Berlin police detective on a confidential assignment from Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels—to track down the father of his favorite actress. Gunther meets the woman, and they begin a risky love affair. He does find her father, knee-deep in a bloodbath in Yugoslavia, but he and Goebbels decide to keep his murderous career a secret and tell her he’s dead. Like all secrets, this one has consequences. Gunther’s sly critiques and disdain for the Nazis is another dangerous activity, and you worry he’ll go too far.

A few more thirty-second book reviews are here. Enjoy!

30-Second Book Reviews

book gift

photo: pixabay

My book reviews have lagged behind my reading ever since this website was down for a month in September. I’ll never catch up! This week and next you’ll get brief reviews of a few books to inspire your holiday shopping. One good thing about books as gifts—they’re easy to wrap!

P.S. If you click on links here to buy any of these books, as an Amazon affiliate, I receive a penny (or so).


Once in a Great City by David Maraniss – For the history-lovers on your list, here’s a fascinating social history of my home town, Detroit, in the pivotal 18 months from fall 1962 to spring 1964, when forces were at work that would shape the city irrevocably. Some were invisible, some were not seen. Pulitzer-Prize-winner Maraniss starts his 2015 book with the conflagration that destroyed the Ford Rotunda—a structure first built for the 1934 Chicago Exposition—where every fall my family and thousands of others went to preview the new Ford models and where every December I sat on Santa’s lap. It was a shocking loss, incomprehensible to me at the time, and a lesson transience. The first of many. His discussions of the auto industry and the stellar success of the Mustang, Detroit’s role in the nascent Civil Rights movement, the rise of Motown, and so much else captures “the precarious balance” of that era, in which the fate of a great American city hung.

The Ford Rotunda

photo: wikimedia

Adolfo Kaminsky: A Forger’s Life by Sarah Kaminsky – Kaminsky’s daughter has told her father’s story as his first-person account, and it is fascinating (featured on 60 Minutes this past October). An Argentinian Jew in Paris during World War II, a peculiar set of experiences prepared him to help the French Resistance provide identity documents for people on the run from the Nazis. He quickly expanded his skills and, working in secret, prepared forged papers that saved the lives of thousands. After the war, he did similar work for Algerian freedom fighters, then other leftist movements over a thirty-year career. He never took any money for this work, instead supporting himself—hardly making ends meet—through his photography. It’s an nerve-wracking tale, in which every day, every transaction held the risk of betrayal and imprisonment, or worse. If people on your holiday list gravitate to inspirational, heroic stories, Kaminsky’s your man.

Short Crime Stories

Black Cat Mystery Magazine – It’s always exciting to see a new publication, and issue #1 of BCMM suggests this will become a good one. For its debut, the editors played it safe by requesting submissions from some of the country’s leading mystery/crime short story authors. The result is a knockout! I particularly enjoyed the sly humor of many of the authors—including Alan Orloff, Josh Pachter, Meg Opperman, and Barb Goffman, whose story is appropriately titled, “Crazy Cat Lady.”

Just to Watch Them Die – This collection, “inspired by the songs of Johnny Cash,” is grittier than Black Cat, and the connection to the songs is at times somewhat tenuous. Quite a few are set in Cash country, south and west. If you have Cash fans on your list, they’ll appreciate the homage.

Switchblade – This is the collection for anyone on your list who thinks they have it bad. These are stories about people so down on their luck the reader’s situation perceptibly brightens. I couldn’t help but think of Dennis Lehane’s distinction between tragedy and noir. In tragedy, he’s said, the hero falls from a great height (think Macbeth). In noir, he falls from the curb. Lots of curb-falling here. Maybe just the thing for a grousing in-law.

On Your Reading Radar: Best Books of Spring


(photo: Andy Atzert, creative commons license)

Already reading as fast as I can, I stumbled onto Google’s enticing menu of the 30 Best Books of Spring. The “delightfully unhinged” stories in Helen Ellis’s The American Housewife sound like fun, as does Dexter Palmer’s Version Control about a possible near-future involving a woman who works in customer support for an internet dating site and her scientist husband is trying, it seems, to develop a time machine.

Jo Nesbo is always a winner in the crime/fiction genre (new book: Midnight Sun, whose protagonist is a runaway hitman), though I’m still trying to steel myself to read his reportedly most chilling book, 2012’s The Snowman.

Two more that sound intriguing are: Alexander Chee’s The Queen of the Night (an opera singer combs her colorful past for clues about who has betrayed her) and Jung Yun’s Shelter (a financially struggling couple must take in his parents. Tensions mount.). Finally, I cannot resist a book whose title is The Little Red Chairs (Edna O’Brien), set in Ireland, about a war criminal in hiding.

Frankly, having read so, so, so many book blurbs, they all start to sound cheesy. I tried to get past that in reviewing the Google list. You might pick out others. But wait, there’s more.

Publisher’s Weekly’s list of “Most Anticipated Books of Spring 2016,” plays it safe by emphasizing well-known authors. Its list is “culled from the 14,000+ titles” known to be forthcoming soon [!]. With that tsunami of prose, who can blame the editors for defaulting to the reliable?

In that rundown are a couple of debuts, but also:

  • Louise Erdrich’s LaRose (an ill-fated hunting trip, North Dakota, 1999)
  • Martin Seay’s Venice trifecta The Mirror Thief (16th c. Venice, Venice Beach in the 50s, and Las Vegas’s Venice casino today)
  • Annie Proulx’s Barkskins (late 17th c., New France. “10 years in the writing,” 800 pages) and
  • Stephen King’s End of Watch, the conclusion of the crime trilogy begun with the Edgar award-winning but overly formulaic Mercedes.

Finally, if I can get these read, I can be ready for the November publication of Moonglow, by one of my favorite writers, Michael Chabon, which explores a family’s hidden past and, says GoodReads, “the destructive impact—and the creative power—of the keeping of secrets and the telling of lies.”

Best Reads of 2015

books, reading

5-star books of 2015 (photo: Vicki Weisfeld)

The books in my “best of” list are not necessarily published in 2015, just read last year. Of the 71 print and audio books reviewed here in 2015, I gave five stars to 10.

What are the criteria for awarding stars? In general, because I try to avoid books likely to be poor, most receive three or more. In my “system,” a three-star book is a good book, a four-star book is an excellent book, and those that earn that last star have something special in terms of language or character or can’t-put-it-downness.

  • City of Thieves – by David Benioff – During the siege of Leningrad, two young men are on a quest to find a dozen eggs (and save their lives). Full of adventure and humor.
  • The International: A Novel of Belfast – by Glenn Patterson – Set just before the start of the Troubles, the patrons and doings in this hotel bar reveal what Northern Ireland was then and lost forever.
  • Grand River and Joy – by Susan Messer – In the months before the 1967 Detroit riots, a Jewish shopowner must decide whether to stay in the city or flee to the suburbs like so many friends and family already have. A Michigan native, I know many places mentioned.
  • The Orphan Master’s Son – by Adam Johnson – Set in North Korea and filled with both pain and wry humor, this Pulitzer-winner shows how people must accommodate under a regime of total oppression. I didn’t expect to like it and did!
  • Against a Darkening Sky – by Lauren B. Davis – I was thrilled to see her bring 7th century England alive, when the advent of Christianity was rooting out the old polytheistic ways and being a traditional healer became dangerous.
  • Elsewhere – by Richard Russo – Not a particular fan of memoir, I found this first-person exploration of a son’s relationship with his feckless mother as absorbing as any novel.
  • Seveneves – by Neal Stephenson – What if the moon blew up? Would humans survive? Written with the author’s usual engaging characters, nail-biting situations, and deep humor. He understands people as well as science (860 pages).
  • Ghost Fleet – by P.W. Singer & August Cole – This near-future thriller shows how dependence on wireless communications networks, GPS, and other technologies make the U.S. military vulnerable. Such an important book and a good read!
  • The Children Act – by Ian McEwan – Moral dilemmas when law and religion collide in disputes over children’s fate. First-rate writing.
  • Clockers – by Richard Price – set in the fictional New Jersey town of Dempsey, the seesawing interactions of police and street drug dealers in this 1992 novel were one inspiration for The Wire.

Happy Reading!

Five Most-Read Posts of 2015

red pencil, grammar, comma

(photo: Martijn Nijenhuls, Creative Commons license)

Of the 208 posts I published on this website in 2015, these five had the largest readership:

#5 – Pump Up Your Vocabulary – Test the size of your vocabulary, and use these resources to rejuvenate the tired array of words we overuse. Awesome, no?! Plus a reminder of the importance of reading—fiction, especially—in building a rich vocabulary. With more words you can express more ideas, with greater precision and subtlety.

#4 – Fan Fic Fest – Lots of people over 30 are only dimly aware of this phenomenon. I wanted to know more, so audited a class devoted to it at Princeton. Wow. Takeaways: fan fiction (loosely: derivative works) has always existed; people write fan fiction for love of existing characters (Holmes & Watson; Spock and Kirk; Little Ponies), not money; it’s a tremendously diverse enterprise, though there is a strain of unexpected couplings and freewheeling sex; it’s decoupling works from the intents of their original creators and making them fractal, with derivative works on top of derivative works.

#3 – Best Reads of 2014 – Soon to be followed by Best Reads of 2015!

#2 – *****The Cowboy and the Cossack – this 2014 book review was near the top of the charts again in 2015. Generally rave reviews from everyone who’s read it, as well as from me.

#1 – Freelance Editing Services Booming – At a time when book lovers complain about the poor quality of editing in books today (and forget proofreading altogether), this article covered reports of a cottage industry in freelance editing services. Included are links to some reputable-seeming services and some “beware of” resources.

Last-Minute Book Gifts

book gifts

(photo: Quinn Dombrowski, creative commons license)

Is  Santa still searching for a few perfect stocking-stuffers for the people on your list? Here’s some help.

I scanned through the books I’ve read and reviewed this year, and selected some for people having different interests.

Included are a few lesser-known books, too. You don’t need me to tell you about Everything I Never Told You (by definition!) or other front-of-the-store best-sellers.

And, you’ll find The Cowboy and the Cossack there, once again, because everyone who takes my advice about it says it’s one of the best books they’ve ever read!

Clicking on the title will take you to my review. If the lucky recipient likes:

While you’re at it—buy two copies, one for yourself! Happy reading!

Literary Duds & Decor for Halloween

Halloween is just another opportunity to strut your literary predilections. Here’s a roundup of clever ideas that have crossed my desk this month.

pumpkin, book art

(photo: Topeka Library, creative commons license)

  • Turn books into Halloween art pieces – pulp fiction, 3-D constructions, collage, bent, torn, printed on—books can do more than sit on shelves
  • Jack o’ lanterns for readers – more Maurice Sendak than Jane Austen, but still . . . you know where the wild things are, and so will the neighbors!
  • Easy-to-challenging costumes – is the need “to die your hair” a bit too Freudian a slip? And for the Lizbeth Salander costume, find someone delicious to draw that dragon on your back!
  • Then check to see whether your costume idea is being overdone in your area with Google’s Frightgeist!
  • Miss Havisham

    “Did you hear that?” asks Miss Havisham.

    It may be more practical to look to short stories for costume inspiration (fewer people have probably read them)

  • But if you’d rather focus your creativity on writing, here’s a list of horror fiction ideas straight from recent news headlines – I have dibs on “Important Ohio bridge infested with thousands of spiders”
  • And a little of everything in this gallery of “literary Halloween” ideas. Love the “Nevermore” wreath.
  • Wearing your best Victorian garb, propping your foot on a pumpkin cushion, settle back to enjoy a “Hyde potion.” Bloody good cocktail, that.

(Thanks to Book Riot, Electric Literature, Pinterest, and HGTV for the inspiration!)

Bees to Honey, Moths to Light, Readers to Books

Anthony DoerrA recent post by “Sarah” for Written Word Media described four principles of book cover design that psychological research  shows influence most people. Although individual preferences of course vary, there are enough common denominators to help readers understand why they’re drawn to a particular book on the bookstore table and to help authors and designers increase the odds that their book is the one picked up. On my next trip to the bookstore, I’m going to check this out!

The Big Green Tent, Ludmila UlitskayaSymmetry in the placement of image, title, author name, and so on. The examples used include All the Light We Cannot See, in which every element is centered on the page, except the later-added National Book Award notice, which stands out by its very non-symmetrical placement. A recent book cover I found myself quite drawn to was that for The Big Green Tent, and you’ll see that it gets a check mark in the symmetry box, too.

The Long Fire, Meghan TifftSimplicity in design also gets points. A chaotic cover may suggest chaos within. Give a prospective buyer too many images and text blocks, and the eye doesn’t really know where to look. There are lots of bad examples (some hilarious), but a good one is The Long Fire. Only after you’ve started reading do you realize the smudging over the lips has significance, but you don’t need to understand (or much notice) that beforehand. Subtle. Simple.

Ghost FleetColor. While I’m notorious for saying, “I don’t care what color it is, as long as it’s green,” in fact a more universally attractive color is blue. As Sarah says, color conveys (or should) a lot about the book’s mood. Note the color similarity between All the Light and the techno-thriller Ghost Fleet. Romance novels tend toward red (hot!), chick-lit toward pink and purple, thrillers toward red and black, darkness and fog. Glance at the rack in an airport and you can pretty much peg the books’ genre without reading a word of cover copy.

In Cold Blood, Truman CapoteContrast allows some elements in the book cover to stand out more than others. A book by a new author will likely emphasizes the title. Truman Capote was pretty well known when he wrote In Cold Blood and the cover reflects that. When it was written, there was a lot of buzz about that book, and the cover was designed so you couldn’t miss it. Admire the single drop of blood. (Or is that a hatpin?)

Typography – I’m adding a fifth item here that unlike Sarah’s tips relies not on science but purely in the domain of opinion. Color choice, use of images, and density of information on covers all have styles and trends. Sometimes a designer innovates to make a cover stand out; sometimes designers just copy what has worked well for another book—thinking or hoping readers will make some association with these past successes. Typography has gone through or may still be in the middle of one of those copycat phases, in which the cover’s words are designed to look hand-written in chalk or crayon. I first noticed this technique with The Fault in Our Stars (2012). Three years later, there are a half-dozen uses of it in this roundup of “most anticipated” new books for fall 2015. At that link you can see 42 new covers and Sarah’s principles followed and flaunted. Which are most attractive to you?

With all this in mind, read NPR’s recent deep dive into the significance and impact of the covers of the 2015 National Book Award shortlist with new appreciation!

Booklovers’ Sand Sculptures

Alice in Wonderland, Cheshire Cat, sand sculpture

Alice (photo: Andy Field, creative commons license)

As the last weekend of summer approaches, a fitting tribute to two combined passions—going to the beach and reading—has been assembled by Kelly Jensen in this photo-essay for BookRiot, showing how sand sculptors around the world have interpreted the scenes of literature—from Gulliver to Alice—in that doomed-to-destruction medium, sand.

One wonders what the writers who created the books that inspired these creations might think of them. As they labored over a page, did they worry that their words would be as ephemeral as these amazing creations? Or that the tide of public opinion would soon wash them away?

Enjoy summer’s last fling!

Separating the Wheat

chalk outline, body

(image: pixabay, creative commons license)

With more than a million new books a year being published in the United States, readers have to look harder than ever to find the book perfect for them. Book reviews work, if they’ve found a reviewer whose opinions they trust; best-seller lists reveal what other people are buying (or do they?); and online consumer recommendations can help, too. Even in my mystery/thriller niche, the number of new books is overwhelming. I need help!

Blogger Sandra Parshall recently reported on an excellent panel discussion involving three top book reviewers. The reviewers and samples of their reviews in the mystery genre are:

  • Maureen Corrigan, who reviews for NPR’s Fresh Air and is a contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers; she recently reviewed Vu Tran’s Dragonfish, a crime drama she calls a noir vision of an “American gone rancid”
  • Dennis Drabelle, crime fiction editor at The Washington Post, who recently reviewed the “mesmerizing” Malcolm Mackay thriller trilogy featuring freelance Glasgow hit man Calum MacLean and
  • Bethanne Patrick, creator of twitter’s popular #FridayReads hashtag, who reviews for multiple venues. She recently reviewed Mary Kubica’s psychological thriller Pretty Baby for NPR.

Every week, these reviewers wade through hundreds of advance review copies of new books in search of gems, including those in the crime/mystery/thriller genre. They have a few groundrules that make it easier: no self-published books; look at those by well-known authors while keeping an eye out for new talent, such as Vu Tran, mentioned above, or “something unusual”; and look at the books from publishers with a good track record. Ultimately, it’s the quality of the writing that makes a book stand out, they said. (My decision rules for book reviews are described here and here.)

Parshall quoted Corrigan’s distaste for market-driven gimmicks—no “vampires living in Downton Abbey with dogs.” I’m guessing she didn’t review any of the vampire versions of Pride and Prejudice. Zombie ones, either.

Finally, they said best-seller lists are not a reliable guide to finding quality books. Marketing expert Tim Grahl, posting on Hugh Howey’s blog The Wayfinder last year, would agree. Grahl says, “I’ve become incredulous at the complete disaster that is the major best seller lists.” And he feelingly describes how the two biggest-impact lists—those of The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal—are created. Not how you think they are.

George Orwell was a frequent, but cranky, book reviewer, saying it was like “pouring his immortal spirit down the drain, half a pint at a time.” Now, new legions of book reviewers are rising up to cope with the massive numbers. They’re the “consumers” whose reviews and recommendations we can read on Amazon and other book-buying sites, the social networks Goodreads and Library Thing, and others. While many consumer comments don’t rise above a simple thumbs-up or thumbs-down, some are thorough and thoughtful. They’re updating the most popular strategy people use for selecting a particular book, the recommendation of a friend.

In addition, aggregator sites like Crime Fiction Lover, for which I am one of a dozen reviewers, have appeared. Similar specialty shops for reviews of romance, science fiction/fantasy, and other genres exist. And hundreds of websites like this one, that regularly review books of all types.

What are You reading?