Tag Archives: Book comment


Author: Min Jin Lee
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing, 2017
Genre: Historical Fiction
Paperback Edition: 479 pages plus Reading Group Guide and Author Interview
Source: Personal copy

In the very early years of the twentieth century, the young daughter of a poor, crippled fisherman in Korea becomes involved with a handsome wealthy stranger. When she discovers she is pregnant and her lover is unable to marry her, she accepts an offer of marriage from a gentle minister passing on his way to Japan. Her new life in Japan is different than the reader imagined it might be.

And so a complex and stunning story of life as an immigrant family unfolds. Never before has it become so clear what the struggle and sacrifice of immigration can be, not only for the first generation who live in a new country, but for the generations that follow. The clarity of this story, and what it takes to survive as a member of a persecuted minority takes the reader by surprise.

The fact that so many are not aware of the history between Korean and Japanese peoples heightens the interest and emotional complexity of this story. This book is a National Bestseller, a finalist for the National Book Award and easily the best book of the year for many. Certainly this author is among the finest novelists you will ever have a chance to read.

Every character a work of art, a setting so carefully and totally brought to life, conflict both exciting and sorrowful, all this and more fills the pages of this addictive family saga. More than any other read in my personal experience, Pachinko enables me to begin to know and feel more than I ever thought possible about the immigrant life and how one group of people discriminates so horribly against another. Perhaps it seems instructive in this regard because to many readers it is a new perspective on a situation that plagues humans with more cost than the rampant illnesses from the middle ages.

It is a book that reminds us how family members demonstrate love for one another, over and over, through difficult times. Next time dear reader that you shake your head about the inhumanity people show for one another, read Pachinko. Your faith in your fellow humans will begin to be restored. You are likely to have a new respect for the meaning of human endurance.

A few years ago I wrote about the experiences of my Scottish foremothers transplanted from Scotland to the unsettled prairies of Iowa. I thought how they just continued keeping-on, endurance played the keynote of their lives. They must tip their bonnets to Koreans who live in Japan and to ever other immigrant group who find themselves denigrated by those who live around them. Here in the United States we often blame our fellow humans with a skin color different than our own for some of the grave difficulties that beset their lives. We think those from other ethnic groups can easily go back to where their parents and grandparents once lived.

Pachinko informs not just the head, but also the heart; the reader cannot stop thinking about the issues, all the while with a heart filled to bursting with multiple emotions. It is quite simply a wonderful story. It took this reader to places I did not know I wanted to go. I cannot remember when I have been so affected and so jubilant with the reading a story, especially one filled with so much sadness. It may prove to be my favorite of all time.


The Woman In Cabin 10: a novel
Author: Ruth Ware
Scout Press: 2016
Genre: Thriller
Paperback Edition: 540 pages plus sneak peak The Lying Game
Source: Personal Copy


Second self


The Women In the Castle
Author: Jessica Shattuck
Publisher: William-Morrow, 2017
Genre: Historical Fiction
Hardcover Edition: 353 pages
Source: Library copy

This novel brings us a story of three women and their children during and after the war and is important for a number of reasons. Let’s highlight two. First it is a wonderful and compelling story. Second it brings the reader new perspectives: Germans from different experiential and cultural backgrounds and their lives during the years from 1938-1991.

For the first time, after many historical tales of World War II, this reader was in Germany with Germans during and after the war. What happened to these women? What did they do? What did they see? Who did they love? The story is mesmerizing. One is swept into their lives and the multiple viewpoints bring the story to life with a truth and understanding not often experienced in the plethora of World War II novels published over the last years. The pain, suffering, courage and difficult decisions are so very real. And then there is the romance of the castle!

Also fulfilling for the reader, is how this writer has taken her characters into the future. All is not gloom and doom. The relationships of all the characters are written with clarity, kindness and understanding, no matter the horror they stood next to, nor the acts they committed. In this story courage is not one-dimensional.

The writing is magnificent. This reader cannot praise the book highly enough. It is perhaps the best novel I have read thus far in 2017.


The River of Kings: a Novel
Author: Taylor Brown
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press (2017)
Genre: Historical Novel
Hardcover Edition: 315 pages
Source: Personal copy

Since I read Janisse Ray’s entrancing book Drifting to Darien about her relationship with Georgia’s Altamaha River and it’s forest of trees: water hickory, river birch, magnolia, tupelo, swamp oak and cypress, the place and its rich history have fascinated me. Now comes a novel of this river, sometimes, called the Little Amazon, the possible river monster hiding in its depths and the earliest settlement Fort Caroline, quite possibly located on the Altamaha.

Two brothers, Lawton and Hunter Loggins kayak its 137 miles to deposit their father’s ashes at the mouth of this river. What is their story? Can they unravel the mystery of their father’s death? And what of that French expedition in 1564 caught between the North America natives and the Spanish? The narrative is illustrated with drawings that survived that expedition.

It’s not an easy read, nor are the answers to those questions particularly clear, at least to this reader. The text is dense. The rhythm of the stories match the pace of the swirling muddy river. Many sentences paint a picture as clearly as a photograph. “A log juts diagonally from the water, wet-dark, upon which a line of turtles has assembled like friendly tumors, their heads extended into the shafts of sunlight.” It’s tempting to read the book a second time just to attend to all the words, unexpected or hardly understood; and how this writer strings them together in paragraphs as tight and sometimes impenetrable as the swamps. It’s the kind of book that causes a writer to open her notebook and copy down interesting words. Yet each word is to be admired, whether one has ever heard of it or not.

The characters are men. There is crude talk, swearing, fights, bragging in all three of the stories. Every imaginable weapon available in the environment is brandished, often in horrible ways and to bloody outcomes. The author spares no feeling to create his images, no matter how horrific. Yes, they are fighting, always fighting, whether large groups, small groups or in duet.

If you wonder what happened to some of the lost colonies of the first settlers in the Americas, here is your graphic answer. Much of the beauty of the river is lost in darkness of one kind and another.

Many of the published reviewers understood much more of the environment described here than did this reader. I looked up many words, but not enough, or my background is lacking. I never did know that square grouper were marijuana bales. Yet it was a review (I don’t remember which one) that sold me on this book.

Still, I must admit that in attempting to understand the story, what was happening at any point, was often obscured by the darkness of the river, the thickness of the vegetation, and the blindness of all the creeks and marshes. I wasn’t sure it was the same river as the one Janisse Ray had introduced me to in Drifting Into Darien.

Though the story of the men plying the river in 1564 and 1565 was difficult at first, ultimately I found it the most compelling. The artist was a true hero and the book needed that. The author is undoubtedly a talented writer, but to this reader it seemed a dark book, the particulars of the brother’s misunderstandings, the story of their father and the various characters met up with on this river were as if viewed from below the surface of a river black with mud, vegetation, and a history that perhaps would best stay buried among the cypress knees and tangled roots of the trees.


Lilac Girls
Author: Martha Hall Kelly
Publisher: Ballantine Books (2016
Genre: Historical Fiction
Hardcover Edition: 476 pages
Source: Personal Copy

This is a necessary book – a look at WWII that will likely present new perspectives to many readers––the horrors of the concentration camp for women more graphic and the view more personal for each of the women whose viewpoints are represented than is the norm in World War II fiction . The reader experiences the war from different perspectives, national, and personal than is often the case in this genre.

The author of this first novel based her story on real people and a real place, Ravensbruck, Hitler’s only major concentration camp exclusively for women. Much of the novel takes place in Poland. Author Martha Hall Kelly became interested in the story of the American Caroline Ferriday and the tremendous work she did helping European women during and after the war. She created characters for her story that are a tribute to many women of the era, real and imaginary and their power to make history.

Characters are one of the strongest aspects of this work. The author also brings to reality not only the concentration camp, but also New York City and Paris during those years, as well as other European settings. One of the most arresting scenes is the arrival at Ravensbruck of Kasia, a young woman from Lublln Poland. This reader found the three separate stories: New York socialite, Carolyn Ferriday, young Polish woman Kasia, and a young German Doctor, Herta, all nearly equally compelling. Exploring how different readers feel about the three stories is a worthy book club discussion topic. Certainly the critics don’t all agree. The author is also particularly adept at helping the reader understand an unfamiliar situation through analogy.

If there was a surprise, it was this. The first two-thirds of the book holds the reader’s attention as if one were watching the tightrope portion of a circus show. The last third seems to move more slowly. Perhaps the reader tires of waiting for the three stories to intersect. Perhaps, one tires of waiting for something to gel with Carolyn’s long romance? I found myself wondering if the last part of the book could have been tightened or compressed, keeping suspense and the momentum of the story in spite of the passage of time. Parts of the story are unsettling and haunting, as they should be. War produces chaos and unhappy endings. Endings are difficult to write as they are to live.

In summary, this is a remarkable first novel. The author’s extensive research pays off as she creates a compelling story. This is women’s history at its best.


Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of A Family and Culture in Crisis
Author: J.D. Vance
Publisher: Harper Collins, 2016
Genre: Nonfiction, memoir and commentary on Appalachian Culture
Hardcover Edition: 257 pages
Source: Personal Copy

This is a personal and passionate look at life in Eastern Kentucky and the Rust-belt cities to which many from the mountain areas moved in search of a better life. The author is compassionate and discerning as he discusses Appalachian culture. He seems to suggest that perhaps many people in this area of our country have lost sight of the American dream of success. He makes his story unforgettable. Others must agree. It sits near or at the top of many best-seller lists.

Some reviewers see this as a very political book. I see it as a careful look at a group of Americans whose experiences are different from many of the people who are likely to read it, and to write about it. Vance’s dissonant family life and living away from the area where he feels most at home, are representative of many of those living and striving in this part of the country. Some are so downtrodden they not longer strive. He carefully exams the attitudes this type of experience fosters.

Vance graduated high school, became a Marine and later graduated from Yale Law School. He credits family members who supported him even when others failed him. He is in a unique position to understand his culture and to comment on it. I believe Vance’s message is that people must use their own initiative and old-fashioned values to better their lives. He does not say this is easy, nor does he think any government program is more than an assist at a certain time in a person’s life. Love and support from family and community are important to the well-being of any person.

But it is not Vance’s message or any political viewpoint that is the major reason to read this book. The book is well-written, easy to read, and very interesting. Facts and statistics are introduced in a useful and enlightening manner, enhancing his story. The first-hand nature of his experiences in a part of our country and among poor white working class people are not well known to this reader. With a heartfelt and emotional story Vance provides a chance to better understand our fellow Americans. There have been few opportunities to understand this segment of our country, and I don’t know of any this readable. It is the personal and heartfelt nature of his story that won me over as a reader. I found it a quick and compelling read.

I highly recommend this book, in part because it is a subject not often addressed. I agree with those who have called it a moving and troubling story out of a region of our land that is too often shunted aside by people in power. There is both humor and despair in Vance’s tale. This reader found his story riveting. I could not put it down. Four Stars!



Max At Night
Author: Ed Vere
Publisher: Sourcebooks Jabberwocky (2015)
Genre: Juvenile Fiction/picture book
Source: Personal Copy

If you have young children or grandchildren who are fond of cats, this fun picture book may catch your eye. And––it is all about bedtime routines, always an appropriate subject. As Max goes through his goodnights he discovers, he cannot find the moon. With humorous good thinking, he climbs higher hoping to discover the whereabouts of the moon.


Simple and delightful illustrations lead readers in a search for the moon. And finally the moon and Max have a conversation. Max has clambered, climbed and crept, all while very sleepy.


What a delightful book for the 2-3-4 year-old. This grandma certainly smiled as she was reading. Just plain fun, but quiet fun.

This is my first Max book, but there are others. You can learn more at edvere.com




Into the Wilderness
Author: Sara Donati
Publisher: Delta Trade Paperbacks (1998-2008)
Genre: Historical Fiction
Paperback Edition: 876 pages
Source: Personal copy

Many readers have discovered this masterful series from Sara Donati. It begins with Into the Wilderness. Readers are transported to the New York wilderness west of Albany in the late eighteenth century (1792) when Colonial and Native American cultures met among the rivers, forests, and mountains. From page one the reader travels to a wilderness peopled with humans from different cultures, Mohawk, Colonial, free people of color, and new immigrants struggling to understand each other. The beauty of the forest contrasts with the strivings of families. This is a book you will live in and never want to leave, not only because of the beauty of the country but because of the intensity of the characters.

Absolutely a master plotter, Donati does it all: writes like an angel, creates a world in another time and place with characters you cannot let go of, and wraps the whole package in action and romance. Oh, the romance, tender and all-consuming. A prim English school teacher and a white man who lives like a Native American seem at first an unlikely pair. Such is the stuff of great romances. And this is certainly one of the best.

Even after this fat and satisfying read, most readers will be salivating for more. Here are the titles of this series: Book Two: Dawn On Distant Shore, Book Three: Lake in the Clouds, Book Four: Fire Along the Sky. Readers who do not know this book will be primed for great adventure from the first page to the last. Donati puts all her words to good use. I think of her as a master conjurer and magician. The worlds and people she creates are thrillingly so real; it is magic.

Five Stars – without a doubt! A fascinating read! Available on Amazon.



News of the World: a novel
Author Paulette Jiles
Publisher: William Morrow (2016)
Genre: Historical Fiction
Hardcover Edition: 209 pages
Source: Personal copy

This author’s first well-known book Enemy Women introduced readers to conditions and happenings in Missouri during the Civil War. That was new territory to many. Now, in what may be her best novel yet, she takes readers to another unfamiliar circumstance in the 19th century. The story told in News of the World takes place in central Texas in 1870 where 72-year-old Captain Kid, a former soldier and printer now earns his living through live readings from newspapers to citizens of small towns. These folks are hungry for news of the world and pay a dime to listen to the distinguished man with the booming, well-modulated voice.

At the beginning of the story, Captain Kidd is charged with returning a young Kiowa girl who was captured from her Texas family and now has been rescued from the Kiowa tribe. Their journey is many miles long through wild and dangerous territory.

The journey is much more than the danger. It takes the reader through the Texas landscape, which comes alive in surprising beauty. Jiles ability to conjure the geology and geography of Texas, more beautiful than many readers may have imagined or appreciated. There is magic in the different rivers, each with its own personality. Every scene, every variety of grass, every strain of rock comes filled with life.

The developing relationship between the wild young Indian girl, Johanna, who has no memory of her white life and the aging Captain Kidd is amazing to witness as they meet life on the road and experience terrorizing adventures. Most hearts melt, in the story, and among readers. It is amazing. And, it is amazing to witness Johanna’s learning and changing.

Captivity narratives true to life seldom involved easy or complete transformations. These stories are an opportunity to see white civilization from the outside, not always a pretty picture. This exquisitely written story, grounded in reality and known psychology, is an outstanding example of that genre. The poetry-like prose touches the ear and the heart. Jiles writes with great clarity. And – there is plenty of action-adventure. It’s a vigorous story. The author’s empathy and love for her characters paves the wave for greater understanding. Fresh viewpoints ring loudly as news of our world worthy of our attention.

Highly recommended!

If you are interested in captivity narratives, comment and I will e-mail several titles I have enjoyed.



Grand River and Joy, A Novel
Author: Susan Messer
Publisher: University of Michigan Press, 2009
Genre: Historical Fiction
Paperback Edition: 230 pages
Source: Library copy

Inside the city of Detroit during the 1960’s the reader falls in step with a Jewish family, and the black Americans who live in an apartment above the family wholesale shoe business Harry and his sister Ilo continue to operate with help from Curtis and his son Alvin who live upstairs. Readers meet Ruth, Harry’s wife and his three daughters and learn something of their lives and the Detroit neighborhood where they live some distance from the business. Readers who have lived in Detroit may feel immersed in the past when they read of White Castle burgers, the Grand Ballroom and former mayor Jerry Cavanaugh.

This is a story of race relations in Detroit, up close and personal, so to speak. Harry and Ruth want to listen to what is going on around them. We, as readers, want to listen to them. This wanting to listen is illustrated in one of the strongest extended scenes/chapters in the book: Boiler. In the middle of the winter night down in the basement of the business when they discover a gash in the boiler, Harry and Alvin sit in broken lawn chairs waiting for morning and the repairman; and they talk to each other and listen to each other.

Wisdom and interesting quotes, one wants to remember and wishes one had recorded, fill this book. I’m glad Book Club picked this book. I needed to hear the wisdom in this story, much of which is not new, but worth listening to again. And a good story about a time important to the history of Detroit, the metro area where I live, makes it easy to listen. The story told here also illustrates how so often people of one ethnic group or race do not understand the words of those from another group. Words and feelings sometimes build barriers to communication. This story removes some of the barriers.

Of special note in this story is a scene that describes the creation of the wonderful murals at the Detroit Institute of Art created by Diego Rivera. Harry’s visit to the mural years after its creation provides an added perspective to this work of art. Book club readers also discussed the joys and sadness of a project Harry did with one of his daughters, fixing old bikes and gathering them to give away in a neighborhood near his business. Mixed feelings and misunderstandings characterized this incident. Misunderstanding and trying to understand are major themes thoughout this time and the tale.

Though I feel sadness that the same issues that tore apart the city in 1967 continue to be responsible for fear and violence today, I am uplifted by the conversations books like this make easier. The candor and the humor of this story give insight and inspiration to the difficult terrain of race relations. Sometimes it seems things have not changed much since that long ago time in spite of our best efforts. There is work yet to be done to bring justice to all American.

We must not fear others. In fact, as someone at book club said so well, “ there are no others”. We are all fellow humans created by God. This is a story, not just for memories and hand-wringing, but for action and understanding. We will keep listening with open hearts. The character Harry can be a model for us all.