Latest reviews

Colum McCann
Reviewed by Phil

Apeirogon n. (Geometry) A polygon with a countably infinite number of sides.

This seems like a contradiction, but it’s an apt name for Colum McCann’s latest book, based as it is on the lives of Bassam Aramin and Rami Elhanan. Bassam is a Palestinian Muslim; Rami, an Israeli Jew. What could these men possibly have in common? They share tragedy: Both Rami and Bassam have lost a daughter to the Middle East troubles. Rami’s daughter, Smadar, was killed by suicide bombers. She was 13. Bassam’s daughter, Abir, was shot by an Israeli patrol. She was just ten years old.

But they share much more than the tragic loss of their children. They share a humility, a humanity, and an understanding that if you always do what you have always done, you will always get what you have always got. And they share an unlikely friendship.

Bassam and Rami are both members of the Parents Circle, a grassroots organization of Palestinian and Israeli parents who have lost a child to the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict. Rami and Bassam’s group meets once a month to talk, share ideas, and offer support.

But Apeirogon goes way beyond Bassam and Rami’s lives. McCann’s juxtaposition of snippets of information, of seemingly random facts, scenes and stories, is rich and captivating. Here’s one snippet, offered just after a scene involving a grenade attack:

“The Hebrew word for pomegranate, rimon, is also the word for grenade. It was, according to some Biblical scholars, the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden. It is said to consistently have 613 seeds, corresponding to the number of commandments in the Torah.”

There are 1001 such carefully-crafted sections, including a visit with amicable numbers, and a man walking a tightrope for peace. Picasso’s dove of peace makes an appearance, and the Dead Sea scrolls are discovered. This is a truly profound novel. Its depth and scope are incredible. McCann has drawn on the whole of human history to craft this masterpiece with its infinite nuances.

Why 1001? One Thousand and One Nights, that classic collection of Middle Eastern folk tales, was Abir’s favorite book.

Colum McCann was born in Dublin. He lives in New York, where he is a Distinguished Professor of Creative Writing in Hunter College’s MFA program. He won the National Book Award for his 2009 novel, Let the Great World Spin. His books have been published in 35 languages.

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Disappearing Earth
Julia Phillips
Reviewed by Phil


Disappearing Earth begins one August afternoon on the Kamchatka peninsula in far north-eastern Russia. Two girls, Sophia and Alonya, play at the water’s edge, before setting off for home. On their way, they stop to help a man who has injured his ankle. He offers them a lift home as thanks for their assistance. They are seen getting into a shiny black car - or was it blue? – by the only witness to the event, a woman walking a white dog.

By the end of the day, their distraught mother, Marina, reports them missing.

The story unfolds over the following year with an exploration of the impact the abduction has on different women. Some of the characters are front and center, like Marina, and Oksana, the witness, who is ravaged with guilt at her lack of action on the day. Other characters are more peripheral, like Zoya, the wife of the police officer investigating the crime. Each chapter is a different month with a focus on a different woman. But their stories overlap and interweave. And always, in the background, lurks the shadow of the abduction.

Then there’s Ksyusha, the university student down from a remote native village in the north. Ksyusha’s sister, Lilia, went missing four years ago. Everybody says she just left home, but questions remain.

In the penultimate chapter of the book - the month of June, almost a year since Sophia and Alonya were abducted - Marina travels north to visit a native festival. There, she meets Alla Innokentevna, Lilia’s mother, who is running the festival. The closing moments of this chapter are heart-rendingly powerful.

Disappearing Earth is much more than a simple crime novel. It is a beautiful evocation of Kamchatka, its people and peoples. Phillips skillfully portrays the tensions between the native people, now largely confined to the north, and the settlers who live in the coastal towns. She deals with the customs and culture with respect, bringing this remote area to life, while weaving a wonderful tale that is rich and profoundly moving. This is a marvelous book.

Julia Phillips lives in Brooklyn. Phillips visited Kamchatka, the setting of Disappearing Earth, as a Fullbright scholar in 2011. Disappearing Earth, her first novel, was chosen as a finalist for the 2019 National Book Awards and was one of the New York Times 10 Best Books of the Year.

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A Long Petal of the Sea
Isabel Allende
Reviewed by Phil

Isabel Allende’s latest book, A Long Petal of the Sea, draws its title from Chilean poet Pablo Neruda’s description of his homeland as “the long petal of sea and wine and snow.” Lines from Neruda’s poetry introduce each chapter of the novel, and the poet makes a couple of appearances. But this book belongs really to Victor Dalmau and Roser Bruguera, two refugees from the Spanish civil war searching for a home.

It’s the late 1930s. As the Nationalist forces close in on the northern holdouts of the government, Republican soldiers and civilians flee towards France in the great exodus known as the Retreat. Among them are Victor, a medical auxiliary, his mother, Carme, and Roser, the pregnant girlfriend of Victor’s brother, Guillem. In the chaos and confusion, the three become separated, but Victor and Roser manage to reconnect in the refugee camps of southern France.

The poet, Pablo Neruda, serving as consul to the French government, is charged with chartering a vessel, the Winnipeg, to ship some of the refugees to Chile. To increase their chances of obtaining places on the ship, Victor and Roser pretend to be husband and wife. Their ruse is successful, and the couple escape to begin new lives in the “long petal.”

But then, in 1973, comes Pinochet. In a cruel twist of fate, the Spanish refugees, long-settled in Chile and Chilean at heart, become refugees once again…

A Long Petal of the Sea is a wonderful read. It's an adventure and a love story, but also a documentary of troubled times. Allende blends fact with fiction almost seamlessly, so you’re left wondering what is real and what is imagined. For the record, Neruda did charter the Winnipeg, which sailed from France with more than 2000 Spanish refugees, arriving in Chile on September 3, 1939, just as war was declared in Europe.

Isabel Allende was born in Peru, where her father was a diplomat in the Chilean embassy. She grew up in Chile. Following the military coup in 1973, Allende fled to Venezuela, where she lived for 13 years. Her books include The House of the Spirits and In the Midst of Winter. In 2010 she received Chile’s National Literature Prize. President Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2014. Allende became a US citizen in 1993 and she now lives in California.

Redhead by the Side of the Road
Anne Tyler
Reviewed by Phil

Micah Mortimer is a creature of habit. He has his set routines and ways of doing things. He has certain times for certain activities – he runs each morning at 7:15, for example – and certain days for certain chores – Monday is floor-mopping day, Thursday is kitchen day. He lives rent-free in the basement of the apartment building where he moonlights as the super.

Micah operates a small computer repair business, Tech Hermit. He responds to calls from his clients, people who have forgotten passwords or lost files. He drives carefully through the streets of Baltimore, conscious of the ever-watchful eye of the “Traffic God” who nods approvingly from above.

Life is good. Micah is content.

And then one day, chaos descends. Micah returns from his run one morning to find Brink sitting on the porch. Brink is the son of Micah’s college girlfriend, Lorna. After getting into some trouble at school, Brink has run away from home and is looking for a place to stay. He thinks Micah might be his father.

Then Micah’s girlfriend, Cass, calls. She is about to be evicted from her home and hints that Micah should offer her a place to stay. Micah, oblivious, suggests she sleep in her car. Cass breaks off their relationship over the phone. Micah’s sisters are appalled. “But we loved Cass,” they cry out when they hear the news.

And so Micah’s carefully organized life runs off the rails…

With its off-beat characters and attention to quirky detail, Redhead by the Side of the Road is reminiscent of Tyler’s earlier novels, Breathing Lessons and A Patchwork Planet. Tyler’s insight into what makes people “tick,” how they create ways to manage the enormous endeavor of daily life, is spot on. Her wry observations on the hopeless situations in which we inevitably find ourselves are amusing and heartfelt. This is a fun read.

Anne Tyler has published 22 novels and won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for her 1988 novel, “Breathing Lessons.” “A Spool of Blue Thread,” published in 2015, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Tyler lives in Baltimore, the setting for most of her novels.

Olive, Again
Elizabeth Strout
Reviewed by Phil

She’s back! Elizabeth Strout’s protagonist, Olive Kitteridge, that cantankerous curmudgeon from Crosby, Maine, returns with a series of poignant scenes from life in the small coastal village. Olive’s older now, and has mellowed somewhat. But she’s still very much Olive.

This is a wonderful reflection on aging, and on taking stock of our lives. Each chapter is like a short story. We jump forward through the span of Olive’s last years. Her marriage to longtime Crosby resident, Jack Kennison. Then widowhood, for a second time. Coming to terms with her growing frailty. And in the background, always the question, what was the point? Strout uses Olive’s sharp observations to nail scenes so powerfully that you’re left gasping, or teary-eyed.

Two of the chapters resonate particularly, The Walk and The End of the Civil War Days. In the former, Denny Pelletier walks home on a cold December night. The rhythm of his steps throws him into a meditation on his life. It seems he is worried about how his children have turned out. But that’s just where his meditation begins. As Danny nears his home, the realization dawns that it is not his children at all. “It was himself about which something was wrong. He had been saddened by the waning of his life, and yet it was not over.”

The End of the Civil War Days tells the story of Fergus and Ethel McPherson, an older couple who have not spoken to each other for 35 years. Their house is divided by yellow duct tape into “his” and “hers” sections, with the tape even splitting the dining room table in half. They communicate with each other through their dog, Teddy. “Teddy, I guess we’ll go to the grocery store,” Fergus says. “I hope to heck Fergus doesn’t forget the milk,” Ethel responds. How can this sad state of affairs end meaningfully? It does. It’s beautifully done.

But all of the chapters are good: funny, touching, sad. Just right. Strout’s writing is spot on. As Jack Kennison says in the opening chapter of the book: “Dear Olive Kitteridge, I have missed you…”

Elizabeth Strout was born and raised in Portland, Maine. Her novel, Olive Kitteridgewon the 2009 Pullitzer Prize for Fiction. Her 2016 novel, My Name is Lucy Bartonreached the top of the New York Times bestseller list. Strout lives in Brunswick, Maine.

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The Secrets We Kept
Lara Prescott
Reviewed by Phil

The Secrets We Kept is really two stories, expertly spun together. The first details the life of Olga Ivinskaya and her long-term relationship with Boris Pasternak, author of Doctor Zhivago. The second story relates the improbable American plot to undermine the Soviet Union by smuggling copies of Doctor Zhivago into the country. The book was banned in the USSR for its alleged criticism of the regime. There’s an extra twist – the complex affair between two of the American spies, the beautiful Sally Forrester, and her protégé, Irina, the daughter of Russian emigres.

Olga, Pasternak’s mistress and muse, who was the inspiration for Lara in Doctor Zhivago, is sentenced to five years in one of the Soviet Union’s bitter and brutal gulags. Her crime? To have praised Pasternak’s work, which is viewed as antiestablishment. The reality is that the state wants to use her as leverage against Pasternak. But his love for and loyalty to Olga are not as strong as hers for him. He sells the manuscript to an Italian publisher and the book is widely published in the West to great acclaim.

Irina is recruited to the typing pool at the recently formed Central Intelligence Agency. The opening paragraphs of the book set the scene perfectly: The privilege of the men, the servitude of the women. The “girls,” referred to by the men as Blondie or Red. But the women have secret names for the men, too. There’s Grabber, Coffee Breath, and Teeth. And then there’s Sally Forrester, who keeps herself a little apart from the group. Irina is intrigued by Sally, and is quickly drawn under her influence. She finds herself recruited to a level of work and secrecy well beyond that of the typing pool.

The book alternates geography and time periods, slowly bringing the disparate threads together in a beautifully woven masterpiece. It’s superbly crafted, rich in detail, and subtle in plot. The Secrets We Kept will make you want to read or reread Doctor Zhivago. It will certainly make you want to look out for Prescott’s next book, whenever that might appear.

Lara Prescott received an MFA from the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas. The Secrets We Kept is her debut novel. It has been translated into 28 languages. Prescott lives in Austin, Texas.

A small tip. If you do buy the book, be sure to remove the dust cover to reveal the beautiful cover hidden away underneath.

The Nickel Boys
Colson Whitehead
Reviewed by Phil

1960s Florida, the Jim Crow South. For Elwood Curtis, a young, black teenager, it’s the first day of college. He is excited to enroll in the Melvin Giggs Technical, a local school for blacks. He wants to check out the campus, or just sit in the quadrangle and “breathe it in.” He sets off south, thinking he can walk the seven miles if he doesn’t get a lift. His luck is in, it seems: The third car to come along stops for him. But Elwood Curtis is in the wrong place at the wrong time. Moments later, they are pulled over by a white deputy: the car has been reported stolen.

Elwood is sentenced to the Nickel Academy, a juvenile reformatory where the inmates are expected to attend classes and labor in the fields and workshops. This regime constitutes the "physical, intellectual and moral training" the Academy proudly claims as its mission.

On his first night, Elwood intervenes in a fight; a couple of bullies are picking on a smaller boy. Once again, he is in the wrong place at the wrong time. Busted by a white houseman on his nighttime patrol, he is told that “Mr. Spencer will take this up.”

At Nickel, justice is random and arbitrary.

They come at 1am. There’s the sound of tires on gravel, doors slamming. The boys are rounded up and taken off to the White House, known as the Ice Cream Factory by the white inmates because they came out with bruises of every color.

Although based on people and events at the Florida School for Boys in Marianna, Florida, The Nickel Boys is a work of fiction. Whitehead’s prose is hard, the tone unrelenting – a reflection of conditions at Nickel. Yes, there is violence, but it is never gratuitous. It’s just part of the story – a story that needs to be told. This is a timely novel. It is a powerful and compelling read.

Colson Whitehead was born in New York City and grew up in Manhattan. After graduating from Harvard, Whitehead worked for The Village Voice, and began writing his first novel, The Intuitionist (1991), which Esquire magazine named the best novel of the year. His 2016 novel, The Underground Railroad, won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for Fiction.

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Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine
Gail Honeyman
Reviewed by Phil

When we first meet Eleanor Oliphant, she lives alone in a small apartment in Glasgow. She is withdrawn, and socially awkward. She doesn’t have any friends. She spends her weekends alone at home, consuming vast amounts of vodka and pizza. Once a week, she has a conversation with her mother.

On weekdays, Eleanor follows a strict routine: she gets to work at 8.30 every morning, listens to “The Archers” every evening, and is in bed by ten, where she reads for half an hour before putting out the light.

At work, Eleanor avoids her colleagues, burying herself in her work, and timing her departure each evening so that she doesn’t bump into them on the way out. It’s her way of avoiding all those awkward social questions. “What are you up to tonight? Plans for the weekend? Booked a holiday yet?”

When Eleanor’s computer freezes at work one day, she is forced to track down the new computer technician, Raymond, for assistance. She is not impressed with what she finds. Raymond is everything Eleanor is not: chaotic, haphazard and disorganized. He’s also a scruffy dresser.

One night, as she leaves the office, Raymond is there to hold the door for her. As they exit, they witness a man collapse on the other side of the street.

“He’s drunk,” Eleanor says. But Raymond rushes to help the man and urges Eleanor to call an ambulance. And so they are thrown together…

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine is a delightful novel about loneliness and friendship. It’s quirky and amusing and full of heart. Eleanor is a rich character, with a troubled past that she slowly learns to accept. In so doing, she takes the first tentative steps into a new world where friendship is possible. This is a charming read.

Gail Honeyman was born and raised in Stirling, Scotland. She attended Glasgow University, where she studied French language and literature, and Oxford University, where she studied French poetry. Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine is her debut novel, for which she won the 2017 Costa First Novel Award. Honeyman lives in Glasgow.

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The River
Peter Heller
Reviewed by Phil

College friends Wynn and Jack set out to canoe down the Maskwa River in northern Canada. They anticipate days of hard paddling, with challenging rapids, and the occasional portage. But also afternoons spent lazily fishing, or collecting blueberries, and evenings reading by the campfire, or just counting the stars.

Early in their trip, they smell the acrid scent of a distant wildfire. But which way is it moving? And how quickly? Exposed on the river, they push themselves harder, hoping to reach a wider stretch of water where their chances of survival will be greater.

But the fire isn’t the only threat: There are other people on the river, too. There are the two Texans, armed with weapons and whiskey. And a man and woman Wynn and Jack hear arguing in the darkness.

The next morning, a canoe comes downriver towards their camp, a single man at the helm. Is this the man they heard shouting? If so, where is the woman? They head back up the river to look for the woman and find her with a serious head injury, close to death, and with no memory of what happened.

What follows is a gripping story of survival in the wilds of nature. Heller’s love for the wilderness comes through in his vivid descriptions of the river. His depiction of water, of current and flow, is masterful, putting you right there with Wynn and Jack as they guide their canoe down the river. With a few, deftly-chosen words he summons up the splash of sun on water at a certain time of day, the tug of a fish at the end of the line, and the power and awe of nature. The River, both a thriller and a wonderful meditation on the natural environment, is a very satisfying read.

Peter Heller lives in Denver. He was born and raised in New York, but attended high school in Vermont. While a student at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, he became a whitewater kayaker, and subsequently travelled the world kayaking and writing about his experiences. The River is his fourth novel. His debut novel, The Dog Stars (2012), was an Atlantic Monthly Best Book of the Year.

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The Lost Letters of William Woolf
Helen Cullen
Reviewed by Phil

William Woolf works as a letter detective at the Royal Mail’s Dead Letter Depot in East London. His job is to decipher illegible addresses, add missing post codes, reassemble damaged packages and send the mail on its way.

He’s had a few memorable successes. There’s the case of the ambergris, discovered by a schoolgirl on a beach and mailed to a museum but somehow gone astray. William tracks down the intended recipient and redirects the package. Weeks later, he is thrilled to read in the newspaper that the young girl has received an award for her discovery. And then there’s the bravery medal, addressed to Harry Prummel. William hand-delivers the long-lost medal and brings Harry closure on a tragic event from the Second World War.

But he’s experienced failure, too. Once, he dreamed of being a writer. But after months of writer’s block, and a squandered advance from his prospective publisher, which they are now demanding he repay, he has had to extend his days at the depot, and weather his wife Clare’s anger at his deception and lack of ambition. Their marriage is drifting towards failure, it seems.

One day, delving into his assigned sack of lost letters, he pulls a blue envelope from the stack. It’s addressed to “My Great Love” and signed “Winter.” Winter writes to her soulmate, someone she has still to meet, but someone she is convinced she will bump into, just around the corner, when she’s least expecting it, at the bus stop or the opera perhaps.

William is fascinated. More of Winter’s letters arrive, each with a few more hints about who Winter might be. She’s from Dublin, where she lived above a bakery and frequented a pub called the Long Hall, but is living in London now. William is convinced Winter’s letters are a personal call to him and pores over each line for clues. He becomes obsessed and, when one of Winter’s letters announces the time and place of her wedding to her “Great Love,” he decides to attend…

Helen Cullen is an Irish writer who has been living in London since 2010. Before moving to London, she worked at RTE, Ireland’s national broadcaster. The Lost Letters of William Woolf is her debut novel.

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The Guest Book
Sarah Blake
Reviewed by Phil

The Guest Book documents the lives of three generations of the Milton family, powerful New England bluebloods that trace their roots back to The Mayflower. Theirs is a family built on tradition, where things are “better left unsaid” so that no-one “rocks the boat.” But there are secrets and sadness within the family.

It’s 1935. Like his father and grandfather before him, Ogden Milton is president of Milton, Higginson and Company, a private investment bank. He is in Germany negotiating a deal with a German steelmaker when news of the death of one of his sons reaches him. Following this tragic accident, his wife, Kitty, withdraws into herself. In an effort to rekindle their lives together, Ogden takes Kitty on a trip to Maine. They purchase an island, Crockett’s Island, and make it their summer home.

The guest book of the title refers to the record the Miltons keep of all the visitors to the island: people like them, privileged and powerful and Protestant. But the record stops abruptly one day, the last name entered, Len Levy. And what is the meaning of the old photograph, torn in half, with the unfinished sentence, “the morning of…” written on the back.

Sarah Blake has written a powerful novel that explores the themes of race, class and family. The writing is superb, deftly conjuring up the island in Maine and the beautiful home where the Miltons spend their summers. The chapters switch back and forth between the different generations, as Blake carefully peels away the layers that make up the family’s history, revealing the nuanced rituals of family life, and the stresses and strains that underlie outward appearances. It’s beautifully done.

Sarah Blake lives in Washington D.C. with her husband and two children. The Guest Book is her third novel. Her first novel, Grange House (2001), was also set in Maine. Her second novel, The Postmistress (2010), was a New York Times bestseller.

Jennifer Cody Epstein
Reviewed by Phil

New York, 1989. Ava Fischer has just received news that her estranged mother, Ilse, has died. Their relationship has always been fraught with unanswered questions. But, for Ilse, it was never quite the right time to give Ava the answers she craved: Who am I? Who was my father? And why did you abandon me for a year at the end of the second world war?

Ava and Ilse have not spoken since Ilse visited New York 12 years previously. The visit was a disaster, prompting Ava to cut all ties to her mother. Ava even went as far as informing her daughter, Sophie, that Ilse had died.

Now Ava sits in her New York apartment going through her mother’s last effects: a package of letters Ilse has written over the years but never sent. The letters are addressed to Ilse’s childhood friend, Renate, and Renate’s brother, Franz. Who are these people? And where are they now?

Reading through the letters, Ava finds disturbing answers to some of her questions.

Wunderland documents the incremental rise to power of the Nazis in 1930s Germany. The story is told from the perspective of three women: the childhood friends, Ilse and Renata, and Ilse’s daughter, Ava. It is a powerful read. It reminds us of the sense of helplessness brought on by name calling, of marches and chanting, and the day-to-day hurt caused by pettiness and spite. Epstein’s handling of the events of Crystal Night, and the nasty impact on the daily lives of individuals in the immediate aftermath, is superb. Wunderland is a timely reminder of the excesses that can result from unchallenged hate.

Jennifer Cody Epstein’s debut novel, “The Painter from Shanghai”, was an international best seller. Her second novel, “The Gods of Heavenly Punishment”, won the 2013 Asian Pacific American Librarians Association Award. Epstein lives in New York City with her husband and two daughters.

We’re All In This Together
Amy Jones
Reviewed by Phil

Kate Parker is losing her mind. She forgets the names of things. She even forgets the names of the members of her family. She certainly forgets why she is in a barrel floating down the Kaministiquia River towards the Kakabeka Falls.

Kate survives the plunge over the 130-foot waterfall, but now lies in a coma in a hospital. A video of her trip over the falls quickly goes viral, with Kate gaining instant fame as the Conqueror of Kakabeka.

We’re All In This Together follows the members of the Parker family as they deal with the aftermath of Kate’s adventure. There are tensions, old jealousies and hurt that still smarts.

The story is told from the viewpoint of the different members of the family. There’s Kate’s husband, Walter, stoic in the face of Kate’s growing eccentricity. There are the twins, Finn and Nicki, engaged in a never-ending battle of one-upmanship. There’s Shawn, who, after years on the streets, arrived at the Parker’s house as a teenager one day and never left. Then there’s London, Nicki’s daughter, involved in an online relationship with a much older man. The Parker family is slowly unravelling, it seems.

Over the four days following Kate’s exploit, as the family members fret about her condition, we learn more about each of these people. As they spend time together, they learn more about one another, and begin to see the past in a new light.

Then Kate goes missing. A thorough search of the hospital turns up nothing. But Walter has an idea…

We’re All In This Together is a touching novel. Jones’ handling of the characters and their vulnerabilities is masterful. The story unfolds gently, slowly revealing the personalities of the members of the family. There are so many heartfelt moments. And then there’s the ending… This is a love story, told with love.

Amy Jones lives in Toronto, Canada. We’re All In This Together is her first novel. Jones worked for several years as a creative writing instructor at Lakehead University, Thunder Bay, where her novel is set.

A Gentleman in Moscow
Amor Towles

A Gentleman in Moscow opens in 1922 with the sentencing of Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov to lifetime house arrest in Moscow’s grand old Hotel Metropol. His crime? Authoring a poem that is viewed by the authorities as critical of the state.

“Make no mistake,” he is warned. “Should you ever set foot outside of the Metropol again, you will be shot.”

And so Count Rostov becomes a Former Person.

Marched back from his hearing, he is allowed to collect a few items from his luxurious suite at the hotel before being led to his new accommodations, a tiny garret on the sixth floor. This is his home for the next 30 years.

Undeterred, the count makes the most of his new life, quickly establishing routines to fill his days. Well-travelled but now confined, he observes carefully as the world comes to the Metropol. Ever since its opening, the Metropol has been “the gathering spot for the glamorous, influential and erudite.” Against the background of daily life, we are treated to snippets of Russian history as committees meet to discuss important topics and celebrate new achievements.

But it is the people who make this novel so endearing. There’s the struggling actress with whom the count begins an affair. There’s the studious Nina, who questions the count on how to become a princess, and conducts experiments in the ballroom to confirm Newton’s theory of gravity. There’s Emile, the head chef, and Andrey, the maitre d’, and Yaroslav, the hotel’s peerless barber who helps the count begin his new life with a clean shave.

A Gentleman in Moscow is a delightful novel. It is witty, humorous and gentle. The Metropol’s staff are beautifully realized. The escapades of the count and his comrades are at once amusing and thought provoking. This is a novel to treasure.

Amor Towles was born and raised in Boston, Massachusetts. He lives in New York City with his wife and two children. His earlier novel, Rules of Civility, was a New York Times bestseller.

Elizabeth McCracken

Bowlaway opens with the discovery of a woman’s body in the local cemetery. Not too unusual, you might think, but this one is “aboveground and alive.” In the bag beside her, there are an abandoned corset, a small bowling ball, a candlepin, and fifteen pounds of gold. This is Bertha Truitt’s entrance into the lives of the people of Salford, Massachusetts, at the beginning of the twentieth century. But who is Bertha Truitt and where is she from?

The first two people on the scene are Joe Wear, the cemetery watchman, and Leviticus Sprague, a doctor from Canada. Joe, a ten-pin bowling aficianado, is intrigued by the candlepin and ball. Bertha recognizes the gleam in his eye and, once recovered, hires him to manage the candlepin alley she opens. She scandalizes the town by marrying the Canadian doctor.

Truitt’s Alleys quickly becomes the social center of the town. Every month, Bertha opens the Truitt’s for a day-long fete with activities for children in the morning and a full-blown party in the evening. Truitt’s is where people meet: their friends, their workmates, and their future partners and spouses.

On a visit to Boston in 1919, Bertha is killed in an accident. The people of Truitt’s mourn her passing. Then Leviticus dies in a strange fire. A mysterious man from Maine arrives, claiming to be Bertha’s son, Nahum Truitt. He has plans for Truitt’s Alleys, and some feathers are going to get ruffled.

Bowlaway is a quirky novel about three generations of a family whose lives revolve around the sport of candlepin bowling. The characters are rich and colorful and beautifully realized. McCracken’s writing sparkles. Her humor is infectious. This is a delightful novel.

Elizabeth McCracken’s earlier book, The Giant’s House (1996), was a finalist for the National Book Awards. Her collection, Thunderstruck & Other Stories, won the 2014 Story Prize. McCracken holds the James Michener Chair for Fiction at the Austin campus of the University of Texas.

The Weight of a Piano
Chris Cander
Alfred A Knopf

The Weight of a Piano opens in the forests of Romania with piano maker Julius Blüthner walking amongst the spruce trees, tapping their trunks with his walking stick, and listening for the music hidden inside them. In this way, he selects the best wood for the pianos he crafts in his workshop in Leipzig. One of those trees becomes Blüthner No. 66,825, the piano of this story.

Russia, 1962. Eight-year-old Katya accompanies her piano tuner father on his rounds. One of her favorite clients is the blind German who lives in their apartment building. He plays his piano everyday, and long into the night, until one day the music stops. The German has died, leaving his beloved piano to Katya because “even a blind man could see the music beating in your heart”. The piano becomes the first great love of her life.

California, 2012. Clara Lundy has just been dumped by her boyfriend and is forced to move to a new apartment. She has few belongings, so the move is easy enough, apart from the weighty Blüthner upright piano her father gave her for her twelfth birthday. Her parents were killed in a house fire shortly after that birthday. The piano, in temporary storage at the time of the fire, is the only physical link Clara has with her parents. But she has never learned to play it and, frustrated at having to move it once again, she advertises it for sale. The prospective purchaser has plans to use the piano for a photo series in memory of his mother. Clara follows the photographer as he takes the piano into the desert for his photoshoot and, as they get to know each other a little better, they begin to realize that the connection between the piano’s past and present is much stronger than they first thought. But Clara also learns that the piano is no longer the fond link to her parents she thought it was; it has become a burden.

Chris Cander’s first novel, 11 Stories, won the 2013 Independent Publisher’s Gold Medal for popular fiction. She also won the 2014 Moonbeam’s Children’s Book Award for The Word Burglar. She lives in Houston with her husband and two children.

The Collector’s Apprentice
B.A. Shapiro

In The Collector’s Apprentice, B.A. Shapiro returns once more to the murky world of art theft, forgery and fraud. The novel is loosely based – and Shapiro emphasizes very loosely in her note at the end of the book – on the lives of the Pennsylvania art collector Albert Barnes and his assistant, Violette de Mazia, and Shapiro dedicates her book to Albert and Violette. In the novel, these historical figures become Edwin Bradley and Vivienne Gregsby.

Paulien Mertens is just 19 years old when she is swept off her feet by the handsome and wealthy George Everard, the owner of a hugely successful investment company. Paulien is not the only one taken in by George’s charms; soon her whole family has invested with George, who promptly disappears with all the assets. Her father is obliged to sell his beloved art collection to cover some of the family’s losses. Paulien is ostracized by her family and flees her home in Belgium, going into hiding in Paris, where she creates the identity of Vivienne Gregsby and ekes out a living as a seamstress.

In Paris, Paulien, now Vivienne, meets Edwin Bradley, a rich, American art collector visiting France to seek out new works by Matisse, Picasso and other artists whose work has not yet received the recognition Bradley believes it deserves. Bradley is impressed with Vivienne’s knowledge of art and takes her on as his assistant while he tours Europe looking for art works for his collection. When Bradley returns to Philadelphia, he offers Vivienne a position in his Bradley Foundation to help document and manage his works of art.

But George resurfaces, this time posing as Ashton King, a wealthy Australian art collector. He has his eyes on the Bradley Foundation’s collection. Vivienne finds herself once more tangled in George’s schemes. But Vivienne is older now, and has schemes of her own…

This is a wonderfully rich and colorful book. There are side trips into Gertrude Stein’s Paris parlor, meetings with Picasso, a love affair with Matisse, and a cameo appearance by Ernest Hemingway. These ingredients are skillfully woven into an intricate thriller that is just perfect for a fireside read on these cold winter evenings.

B.A. Shapiro’s earlier books include the bestsellers The Art Forger and The Muralist. She lives in Boston.

Waiting for Eden
Elliot Ackerman
Reviewed by Phil

Seriously injured while on patrol in an overseas warzone, Eden Malcolm is flown back to the States for treatment. He is not expected to survive the flight home but, against all odds, makes it. Now he lies in a hospital bed, barely alive, paralyzed and unable to speak. His doctors and nurses believe he is unaware of his surroundings.

Eden’s wife, Mary, had not wanted him to re-enlist. She tried desperately to become pregnant, hoping that Eden would stay home if he thought he was going to be a father. She finally succeeds, but Eden re-enlists anyway. Now he has a daughter that he has never seen.

Mary spends each day in an armchair beside his hospital bed. For three years she visits without a break, then, one Christmas, relents and leaves Eden to visit her mother for three days.

While Mary is away, Eden flickers back to consciousness. Over the next days and weeks, Mary and Eden painstakingly establish communication using a code Eden learned as part of a torture survival course he took before deployment. He has questions about his wife, and about his daughter, but he is not sure he wants the answers… He is not even sure he wants to live anymore, but Mary has other plans.

The story is narrated by Eden’s friend, a fellow soldier who did not make it back home. He haunt’s Eden’s past and present, sharing stories and slowly revealing the truth about Eden and Mary and their daughter, Andromeda.

Waiting for Eden is an exploration of love, fidelity and loyalty. It’s a thought-provoking study of choices and the consequences that come with them. Ackerman’s prose is spare and compelling, setting the perfect tone for his story. This is a powerful book.

Eliot Ackerman served in the Marine Corps for eight years. His 2017 novel, Dark at the Crossing, was a finalist for the National Book Award. He lives in New York City and Washington DC.

The Travelling Cat Chronicles
Hiro Arikawa
Reviewed by Phil

Returning home one day, Satoru finds a cat sleeping on the hood of his silver van. The cat is fiercely independent at first, but Satoru slowly gains its confidence. After the cat is struck by a car, Satoru takes it to the vet and invites it into his home while the cat recuperates. He names the cat Nana – Japanese for seven – because the cat’s crooked tail looks a bit like the number seven.

So begins their new life together. As Nana observes, “Satoru was the perfect roommate for a cat, and I was the perfect roommate for a human.”

But life doesn’t always work out the way you think it will, and one day Satoru comes home and apologizes to Nana.

“I’m really sorry it’s come to this. I never intended to let you go,” Satoru says. “Shall we go?”

Satoru and Nana embark upon a journey, ostensibly to find a new home for Nana. They travel the length and breadth of Japan, from Kyushu in the south, to Hokkaido in the north, stopping here and there to meet Satoru’s childhood friends. They meet The Man Without a Wife, The Unsentimental Farmer, and stop at Sugi and Chikako’s Hotel for Pets. At each stop, we learn more about Satoru’s past and sense that something heavy looms in the future. And we revel in Nana’s mischievous engineering of the situation at each place to make sure he is deemed unsuitable for adoption and so gets to stay with Satoru a little longer.

Then there’s the heart-breaking Chapter 3½.

The Travelling Cat Chronicles is not just for cat lovers. It is an endearing reflection on the meaning of life and the importance of relationships. Arikawa deftly weaves together the different pieces of this story to create a beautiful narrative on friendship and compassion. It’s a delightful tale.

Born in Kochi, western Japan, Hiro Arikawa now lives in Tokyo. She won the Dengeki Novel Prize for new writers in 2003 for her novel Wish on My Precious. The Travelling Cat Chronicles is soon to be made into a film.

Washington Black
Esi Edugyan
Reviewed by Phil

George Washington Black, is an eleven-year-old field slave on a Barbados sugar plantation. Wash, as he is called by the other slaves, has no knowledge of who his parents are and is brought up by Big Kit, a huge, fierce woman believed to be a witch. She spins him fantastic tales of Dahomey, the village where she lived in Africa before being captured and shipped to Barbados.

When the plantation owner dies, his son, Erasmus Wilde, arrives to take over the plantation. The misery of the slaves is deepened as the new master wields his cruel authority.

One night, Big Kit and Wash are summoned to the main house to serve dinner to Erasmus and his brother Christopher, recently arrived from England. Christopher – nicknamed Titch due to his small frame – is a scientist and explorer. He is also an abolitionist and has come to Barbados to document the savagery of plantation life for a report to be presented to parliament. Titch takes an interest in Wash and “borrows” him from his brother. Titch introduces Wash to the wondrous world of nature and flying machines, planets and stars, and microscopic organisms. They develop a friendship and respect for one another that seems to bridge the gulf of their different circumstances.

When Wash witnesses the suicide of Titch’s Uncle Philip, he is blamed for Philip’s murder. With a bounty on Wash’s head, Titch and Wash flee Barbados in Titch’s experimental flying machine. What follows is a long and desperate journey, as Wash is pursued by the notorious slave catcher, John Willard.

Washington Black is a story of love and loss, of aspiration and failure. It explores themes of friendship, trust and betrayal. In examining the impact of the choices we make on the lives of others, Edugyan asks us to think deeply about what it takes to live a life of dignity and meaning, and what it means to be free.

Esi Edugyan won this year’s Giller Prize for Washington Black. Her 2011 novel, Half-Blood Blues, also won the Giller Prize and was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize. Born and raised in Calgary, Edugyan lives with her husband and two children in Victoria, British Columbia.

The Friend
Sigrid Nunez
Reviewed by Phil

Sigrid Nunez’s works often explore themes of identity, memory and the process of writing. She returns to these themes with The Friend, for which she received the 2018 National Book Award.

With the unexpected death of her long-time friend and mentor, a woman reluctantly takes the friend’s Great Dane into her care. What follows is a deep and thoughtful exploration of the meaning of friendship, and how the growing bond between the woman and the dog is a source of comfort for both of them in this time of loss.

There are many delightful moments in this heartfelt book as the woman and the dog come to terms with their grief. Part of her initial reluctance to adopt the dog is that dogs are prohibited in her apartment building. Finally confronted by the apartment manager and threatened with eviction, the woman registers the dog, Apollo, as an Emotional Support Animal.

And then there’s the daily care and maintenance, a huge task with such a large dog.

“If he gets on the furniture,” the woman is told, “all you have to do is say ‘Down’.” But the woman observes that since the dog has moved in, he has spent nearly all his time on the bed.

As the novel progresses, the woman comes to depend more and more on Apollo’s quiet companionship. She is determined to understand his moods and his long silences, and admires Apollo’s stoic acceptance of his new owner.

While the overall tone of The Friend is mournful, Nunez’s sharp observations and dry wit make this novel both thought-provoking and entertaining.

Nunez is the daughter of a Panamanian-Chinese father and a German mother. She was born and raised in New York City. Nunez has written six previous novels, as well as a memoir of Susan Sontag.

Gone So Long
Andre Dubus III
Reviewed by Phil

It has been 40 years since Daniel Ahern last saw his daughter, Susan. She was just three years old when she was snatched from his arms before Daniel was cuffed and marched away by the police. He spent 15 years in prison. Since his release, he has built a new life refurbishing furniture in the mornings, and volunteering as a driver for old and infirm residents of a neighboring town in the afternoons. It’s a simple life, but satisfying in its routine.

After being taken from Daniel, Susan was raised by her grandmother, Lois. To explain the absence of Susan’s parents from her life, Lois has told Susan that they died when their car crashed off a bridge into a river. As a teenager, she learns the truth for the first time. The knowledge shatters her sense of security, and her life descends into a series of brief and chaotic relationships with unsuitable men.

Married for three years to Bobby Dunn, her uncertainties rise again – can someone with such a tragic background ever find love? She takes refuge with Lois, telling Bobby she needs the time and space to work on a novel. Instead, she carefully unpeels the long-buried memories of her childhood, discovering new insights into who she is and why.

Now, Daniel is dying and he has unfinished business with his daughter. It's time to set his affairs in order. He writes Susan a letter and sets off on the three-day journey south to Florida where she lives.

This is a powerful and compelling novel. Dubus writes with great intensity. With a few deft sentences he conjures up scenes so vivid it is as if you are there. His characters are real and heartfelt; their pain and self-doubt are almost tangible. The tension rises thrillingly as the main characters approach the denouement. But will Susan and Daniel find peace?

Andre Dubus III is a faculty member at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell. His novel, House of Sand and Fog, was a finalist for the National Book Award in 1999. He lives in Newbury, Massachusetts, with his wife and three children.

Kate Atkinson
Reviewed by Phil

London, 1940. Juliet Armstrong is recruited by MI5, Britain’s domestic counter-intelligence service, and tasked with transcribing the recordings of a group of suspected Fascist sympathizers who meet regularly in a London apartment. The group is led by Godfrey Toby, a double agent working undercover for MI5. Juliet finds the work tedious, and relieves the tedium by imagining romantic entanglements with her boss, Peregrine Gibbons, who is not undercover, but is certainly hiding something.

After weeks of boredom, Juliet is thrilled when she is asked to take on an assumed identity – Iris Carter-Jenkins. Iris infiltrates a group of high-society women whose husbands have all been imprisoned because of their support for Fascism. There are code words and passwords and words of the day and it seems that nearly everybody in the group is working undercover for MI5.

Juliet’s world is upended when one of Godfrey’s group arrives early to a meeting and catches him talking with Juliet about one of the transcriptions. Shots are fired, and a cover up begins.

Ten years after the war, Juliet is working as a radio producer with the BBC. She assumes her wartime past is dead and buried, but then she bumps into Godfrey on the street one day. He pretends not to know her and quickly goes on his way. But the chance encounter disturbs Juliet’s long-hidden memories of the war and she has to come to terms once again with the events of 1940.

Atkinson’s novel draws on actual wartime events, but spins them wickedly to create this delightful romp through the halls of MI5. Her language is playful and fun, her wit sharp and well observed. The characters are finely crafted, but flawed, and all the more realistic for their flaws. This is a superb read.

Kate Atkinson lives in Edinburgh, Scotland. Her novels have won many prizes, including the Whitbread Book of the Year in 1995 for her first novel, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, and the Costa Novel Award in 2013 for Life After Life.

Barbara Kingsolver
Reviewed by Phil

Barbara Kingsolver’s latest novel, Unsheltered, explores people’s relationships with themselves, their families, their communities, and the natural environment. The book is divided into two parallel stories, one set in the present day, the other in the 1880s. Chapters alternate between these two time periods, with a tumbledown house in Vineland, New Jersey, providing a link between the past and the present. Kingsolver uses the past as a mirror to reflect on the uncertain times we face in the present.

The present. Willa Knox inherits an old brick house in Vineland. The house is slowly falling apart, as is Willa’s life, it seems. The magazine where she worked has closed. Her husband has just lost his job. Her live-in, grouchy father-in-law is slowly dying of cancer. Her daughter is adrift. And her son has just called with some devastating news.

Willa seeks refuge in the past, plundering the archives of the local preservation society to find out whether there is any historical significance to her ramshackle home. In the archives, she discovers the work of Mary Treat who corresponded with Charles Darwin for many years after the publication of The Origin of Species.

The Past. Thatcher Greenwood first encounters his neighbor, Mary Treat, when he goes to her house to retrieve his daughter’s dogs. He finds Mary unmoving at her desk, in the midst of conducting a scientific experiment. She wants to find out whether a venus flytrap can digest the tip of a human finger, and has been ensconced with her finger in the jaws of the flytrap for four hours already. Thatcher, a science teacher at the local high school, is enthralled. They quickly form a scientific partnership and, over the coming months, embark on excursions into the countryside to marvel at the wonders of nature.

Unsheltered is beautifully written. It is more conversational than many of Kingsolver’s other novels, but equally as powerful in its underlying message: the importance of family and friends as a support in an age of uncertainty.

Barbara Kingsolver’s previous novels include The Poisonwood Bible and Prodigal Summer. She has degrees in Biology from DePauw University and the University of Arizona. Kingsolver lives with her family on a farm in Virginia.

The Winter Soldier
Daniel Mason
Reviewed by Phil

Lucius has just completed the first two years of his medical degree when World War 1 engulfs Europe. He enlists and is assigned as a medical orderly to a remote field station in the Carpathian Mountains of eastern Europe. The Winter Soldier begins with Lucius climbing down from a train at an isolated station in the mountains. It’s a two-day journey on horseback to his posting.

Lucius finally arrives at the field station, a shell-damaged church in the village of Lemnowice, expecting to work under the supervision of the resident doctor. Instead, he is met by a nursing sister in a stiff grey habit and armed with a rifle.

“The doctor?” she asks in response to Lucius’s question about his supervisor. “Didn’t you just say you are him?”

Margarete, the nursing sister, shows Lucius around, introducing him to all the patients and summarizing their medical needs. She quickly realizes that Lucius has no experience – he has in fact only ever treated two patients – and takes him under her wing. Working side-by-side in grueling conditions for long hours each day, they develop a strong bond, which slowly evolves into love.

One day, a peasant arrives pushing a wheelbarrow, loaded with a comatose soldier, the winter soldier of the novel’s title. Lucius and Margarete examine the patient, but can find no sign of physical injury. They diagnose nervous shock, a new disease sweeping the continent in the footsteps of the war. Lucius and Margarete’s care and treatment of Horvath, the winter soldier, have a profound effect on all of their lives.

The Winter Soldier is a masterpiece. Mason’s writing is so evocative that the reader is drawn into the world he creates, seeming to stand right there beside Lucius and Margarete as they tend to their patients in the little church in Lemnowice.

Daniel Mason has written two previous novels, The Piano Tuner and A Far Country. He wrote The Piano Tuner while still a medical student. Mason is a Clinical Assistant Professor in the Stanford University Department of Psychiatry. He lives in the San Francisco Bay area.

The Woman in the Window
AJ Finn
Reviewed by Phil

Following a traumatic accident, Anna Fox develops a severe case of agoraphobia. Confined to her house and separated from her husband and daughter, Anna lives her life vicariously though the lives of the people who dwell on her street. She watches from her windows, using a camera with a telephoto lens to see people’s expressions close up. She also drinks copious amounts of merlot, and self-medicates on prescription drugs.

It’s Halloween. A bunch of boys congregate outside Anna’s house to throw eggs at her door and windows. Anna summons up the courage to open the door and yell at them, but is overcome and collapses on her doorstep. She is helped inside by her new next-door neighbor, Jane Russell. They strike up an instant friendship.

A few days later, Anna is at her post watching. Things are a bit blurry – her eyes are getting old, and the wine and mixed medications don’t help. In the neighboring house, she catches sight of Jane. Jane appears to be arguing with someone. Suddenly, Anna hears a scream, and there is a spurt of what looks like blood on the window. Anna stares in shock as Jane crumples slowly, smearing the blood with her hand.

When the police investigate, there is no sign of Anna’s friend. Alistair Russell introduces a completely different woman as his wife Jane. The police suspect Anna may have been hallucinating, and dismiss her claims. Anna wavers, too, but something keeps nagging at her… What really happened? And who was the woman she saw?

This is a terrific thriller. Finn’s writing is tight and seemingly effortless. His sentences crackle. The suspense – so many possibilities, so many questions - is maintained to the very end.

AJ Finn is the pen name of Daniel Mallory, a graduate of Oxford. Mallory has written for a wide-range of publications. He is currently the executive editor for William Morrow. The Woman in the Window is his first novel.

Where the Crawdads Sing
Delia Owens
Reviewed by Phil

Where the Crawdads Sing is at once a coming-of-age story, a murder-mystery, and a courtroom drama. It’s also a beautiful celebration of the wonders of nature.

Chase Andrews’s body is found battered and broken at the base of a fire tower in the marshlands near Barkley Cove, North Carolina. Did he fall or was he pushed? Suspicion falls on Kya Clark, the mysterious Marsh Girl, who lives alone in an isolated shack. Nobody knows much about Kya who, since childhood, has scraped a living by digging mussels and selling them to Jumpin’s Bait and Gas.

The local sheriff slowly builds his case, aided by other members of the community who come forward with sightings of Kya. One witness reports seeing Kya attacking Chase shortly before he was found dead. Another tells the sheriff he saw her on her boat on the night of the death, heading in the direction of the fire tower. But Kya has an alibi: she was away in Greenville for two days, meeting the publisher of her award-winning books on marsh life. People saw her get on the bus and off again two days later when she returned to Barkley Cove. And the publisher confirms the meeting.

The story switches back and forth between Kya’s childhood, growing up in the marsh, and the investigation of Chase’s death. The two storylines come together in 1970 when Kya is arrested on suspicion of murdering Chase.

Owens’s prose is delightful. With her beautiful depictions of the landscape, she creates a rich portrait of the teeming life in the coastal marshes and how the reclusive Marsh Girl interacts with the fragile environment. Her descriptions of the light on the water and through the trees are scintillating.   

Delia Owens won the John Burroughs Award for Nature Writing. She currently lives in Idaho. Where the Crawdads Sing is her first novel.

Us Against You
Fredrik Backman
Reviewed by Phil


Fredrik Bachman’s latest novel, Us Against Them, follows on from the events of his previous novel, Beartown, and asks the question: How does a town recover from a divisive and shocking event that rips a community apart?

Beartown is a tough, hard-working community deep in the forest. Life isn’t easy for the inhabitants of the town, but they shrug off their difficulties with pride. Life isn’t supposed to be easy, after all.

The pride and joy of the community is the local ice-hockey team. But the team is threatened with closure. All the best players have left for the neighboring town of Hed, and the team’s sponsors have followed them. The team’s long-standing coach retires and is replaced by a woman with an unusual coaching style. One of the players is photographed kissing his male lover, and the photo goes viral. The club’s general manager, Peter Andersson, feels his family drifting slowly apart as they struggle to deal with what happened to his daughter, Maya.

Backman takes the shattered fragments of the community and deftly pieces them together once more. This is a book about guilt, and the destruction it can wreak on relationships. But it’s much more than that. It's about surviving in the face of hardship; it’s about growing, and the strength that can come from loyalty and a shared sense of passion. This is a compassionate novel. There are some wonderfully moving moments when the inner kindness of the town’s inhabitants is revealed.  Backman observes the dark in people, but also the light. His touch is delicate, understated, even, and wields great power.

Fredrik Backman is the bestselling author of A Man Called Ove. His books have been published in more than forty countries. He lives in Stockholm, Sweden, with his wife and two children.

Force of Nature
Jane Harper
Reviewed by Phil

Five women set off on a company team-building exercise in the Giralang Ranges, a mountainous forest area in northern Victoria. Their task is to hike through the forest, camping out for three nights along the way. Four days later, only four of the women emerge.

The missing woman, Alice Russell, has been helping the federal police with their investigation of money laundering at the company, BaileyTennants, a boutique accounting firm in Melbourne. Federal agent Aaron Falk’s last contact with his informant was a curt message received at 4am from somewhere in the forest. The only words he can distinguish are “hurt her”. But who wanted to hurt Alice, and why?

On the night of the first camp, the women are joined by a group of five men from the same company, out on their own retreat. Daniel Bailey, chief executive of BaileyTennants, draws Alice aside. They are seen talking angrily, gesticulating wildly. Does he know that Alice has turned informant?

The four women have their own loyalties and resentments. Each of them has a slightly different version of the events of the last few days, and each has a different motivation for keeping back certain parts of the story.

The Giralang Ranges have a history of their own. Twenty years earlier, they were home to the notorious Martin Kovac, convicted of murdering three young women whose bodies were found buried in the forest. A fourth woman was never found. Kovac died recently in prison, but there are rumors that his son has returned to the area.

Harper sets the scene beautifully for this brilliant crime novel. There are so many elements to the story, suspicions to be followed, and layers to be uncovered. This is a page-turner of a book that keeps you guessing right until the very end.

Jane Harper lives in Melbourne, Australia. Her first novel, The Dry (2016), was an international bestseller. Force of Nature is her second novel.

Little Fires Everywhere
Celeste Ng
Reviewed by Phil

Little Fires Everywhere begins where it ends, with the smoldering ruin of the Richardson’s suburban house in the idyllic town of Shaker Heights, Ohio. The fire fighters attending the scene report that there were multiple points of origin for the fire and that an accelerant was probably used - little fires everywhere.

The youngest member of the Richardson family, Izzy, is missing, and the rest of the family are convinced she is responsible for setting the fire. But why?

Mia Warren and her daughter Pearl arrive in Shaker Heights the summer before the fire. They rent an apartment in a building owned by Elena Richardson. It’s their latest home in a long list of temporary residences they have shared over the years. Mia is an artist and, once she finishes a project, she feels the need to uproot, move on, and find new inspiration. But this time they mean to settle for longer.

Pearl meets Moody Richardson, who shares many of the same classes at school. Moody invites her back to his house. Pearl is quickly fascinated by all things Richardson. Meanwhile, Izzy Richardson, with aspirations to become an artist, is drawn to Mia.

A custody battle over a Chinese-American baby tears the town apart. Mia is a friend of the child’s birth mother Bebe. In a fit of depression and desperation, Bebe abandons the baby outside the firehouse. It is quickly found, and the McCulloughs, old family friends of the Richardsons, are given temporary custody. The ensuing custody battle divides the town and pits Elena and Mia against each other. What is best for the child? Who will make the better parent?

This is a story about motherhood. But it is much more than that: it is a story about race, and power, and privilege. Ng gently peels away at the layers of Shaker Heights society, exposing rifts and petty prejudices, and long-held grudges. Behind the peaceful façade that Shaker Heights projects to the world, there are little fires everywhere.

Celeste Ng grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Shaker Heights, Ohio. She graduated from Harvard University and earned an MFA from the University of Michigan. Her first novel, Everything I Never Told You (2014), was a New York Times bestseller.

There There
Tommy Orange
Reviewed by Phil

Tommy Orange’s debut novel, There There, takes its title from a Gertrude Stein quote. When asked about what it was like to return to her hometown, Oakland, Stein replied “There is no there there.” What once had been was no longer. Orange uses this idea as a parallel for the Urban Indian experience and the dislocation felt with the loss of tribal homelands and ways of being.

There There is a formidable novel. Orange’s prose is lean, hard and relentless. He introduces us to twelve Urban Indians from Oakland, California; twelve different voices with individual tales of hope or longing or despair. Each character is remarkable. All are well-formed. Many are flawed and struggling. Orange reveals their motivations, their fears and their connections in a series of brilliant vignettes. The stories pivot around the upcoming Big Oakland Powwow.

Dene Oxendene, slowly getting over the death of his uncle, interviews random people, asking for their stories. He tries to find meaning in their lives and plans to produce a documentary from the recordings he makes. Orvile Red Feather practices traditional Indian dance for his debut at the powwow. His aunt, Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield, is secretly proud of her nephew’s ambition, and plans to attend the powwow to see his performance. Jacquie Red Feather, newly sober, is traveling back to the family she abandoned years ago. Her traveling companion is Harvey, the boy who got her pregnant when she was 17, then deserted her. Jacquie’s estranged daughter, Blue, flees a violent marriage. There’s a scene at the bus station as she makes her escape that is breath-taking.

There’s a sense of foreboding throughout the novel as the day of the powwow approaches. This is where the twelve stories intersect and explode.

Tommy Orange recently graduated from the Institute of American Indian Arts. He is a member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma. He lives in Angels Camp, California.

The Only Story
Julian Barnes
Reviewed by Phil

The dust cover of Julian Barnes’s latest novel, The Only Story, hints at the subject matter: scattered around the title, in a smaller and different font, are the words “Love is.”

The book opens with a powerful question:

Would you rather love the more, and suffer the more; or love the less, and suffer the less? This is, I think, finally, the only real question.

Paul, the narrator, quickly points out that it is not a real question, because we don’t have the choice. He continues:

Most of us have only one story to tell. I don't mean that only one thing happens to us in our lives: there are countless events, which we turn into countless stories. But there's only one that matters, only one finally worth telling. This is mine.

It’s the Sixties. Paul, nineteen, is home for the summer from university. He is quickly bored with the sedate life of his hometown, a South London suburb known affectionately as The Village by all its residents. His mother encourages him to join the local tennis club. There, he quickly forms a friendship with the much older Susan Macleod. At first, their relationship is platonic. Susan is married, after all, and has two daughters, both older than Paul. But, as happens, their friendship quickly develops into a passionate love affair.

In the first section of the book, Paul tells his story of falling in love with Susan. Their affair upsets the conservative community in which they live. Paul and Susan are expelled from the tennis club, and run away to the city to set up a home together. In the second section, Paul reflects on his time with Susan, and on what he has learned about love, and what he is still discovering about life. In the final section, Paul distances himself as his relationship with Susan breaks down. There are flashbacks, new memories revealed, and fresh interpretations of what happened to their love and their lives. And why.

Barnes’s writing is hypnotic. The Only Story gently bubbles along, touching on this and that, but, in the process, revealing great insight into how a love can fill our lives and still leave us with questions.

Julian Barnes received the 2011 Man Booker Prize for his novel The Sense of an Ending. He has written twenty-one novels and his work has been translated into more than thirty languages.


Michael Ondaatje

Reviewed by Phil

Michael Ondaatje’s latest novel, Warlight, is set in London just after the Second World War.

When their parents move to Singapore, 14-year-old Nathaniel and his 16-year-old sister, Rachel, are left in the care of a character they call The Moth. But who is The Moth? How does he know their parents? And who are all the strange and suspicious visitors that descend on the house in the absence of their mother and father?

Returning from school one day, Rachel takes Nathaniel down to the cellar to show him her discovery: Their mother’s trunk, which they had watched her pack meticulously in preparation for the move to Singapore. So, where is their mother? And why has she left them behind?

Angered by his apparent abandonment, Nathaniel starts skipping school to hang out with one of the visitors, The Pimlico Darter, a mysterious underworld figure. The Darter’s great claim to fame is that, despite running all kinds of betting scams at the greyhound tracks he visits, his name and mug shot do not appear in the police lists of known and wanted crooks that frequent the races.

“Hold your cards to your breast” is The Darter’s constant refrain, as if to reveal anything about yourself is to give the game away. The Darter eventually slips out of Nathaniel’s life, clutching one last secret close to his chest.

The warlight of the title refers to the muted lighting used to guide emergency services through the London blackout at the time of the Blitz. It is an apt metaphor for the book: Ondaatje’s prose flows seamlessly, conjuring up vivid scenes and images that slowly reveal the dim secrets of the past and their impact on the present. Ondaatje draws the reader into the lighted corners, carefully unwrapping a secret here, a secret there, sweeping the reader along in the irresistible current of the story.

This is a very satisfying read.

Michael Ondaatje won the Booker Prize for his 1992 novel, The English Patient.


The Overstory
Richard Powers

Richard Powers’ novels often examine the impact of science on the world. His latest book, The Overstory, is a breathtaking exploration of the evolution of life on earth, the co-dependency of life forms, and the threat we, as a species, pose to this intricate system. It is an impassioned cry for us all to pause, take stock, and think about the devastation we are wreaking on the ecosystem before it is too late. But this is no preaching from the pulpit tirade; it’s a beautifully written work drawing on the knowledge of the ages to paint a picture of hope and possibility – if only we would listen to the world around us: the trees have secrets they want to share.

The book is divided into four main parts: Roots, Trunk, Crown, and Seeds. In Roots, Powers introduces the main characters in eight short and very moving pieces. He clearly loves his characters, revealing them with great warmth and compassion.

In Trunk, five of these characters join the Timber Wars of the Pacific Northwest, staging blockades and peaceful protests until they are met with violence. They decide to meet the violence with a campaign of arson against equipment and machinery. Tragedy strikes, leaving one of them dead, and the other four on the run.

Crown opens 20 years later. One of the arsonists is discovered, and reveals the identity of a second arsonist in a deal to reduce his sentence. The second arsonist refuses to expose his friends, and is sentenced to two consecutive life terms for domestic terrorism.

Powers begins the final section, Seeds, by imagining the life of our 4.5 billion-year-old planet condensed into a single day starting at midnight. On this time scale, modern humans appear just four seconds before the end of the day, and the first cave paintings are created with just a second left until midnight. Yet we have come to dominate the planet.

This is a beautiful novel, told with love and respect, but also with a sense of urgency. It’s time to listen to the trees.

Richard Powers won the 2006 National Book Award for his novel, The Echo Maker.


Grief Cottage

Gail Godwin

Paperback release date: May 8
Reviewed by Linda

The locals on a small South Carolina island refer to an abandoned seaside cottage as "Grief Cottage" because a visiting boy and his parents disappeared fifty years ago during a hurricane.  Marcus, an eleven-year-old boy, is sent to live on the island with his artistic, reclusive aunt after his mother dies. To fill the long, lonely hours of each summer day, Marcus visits Grief Cottage to commune with the boy who disappeared fifty years ago. With each visit, Marcus summons the courage to get a little closer to the boy -- and closer to exploring his own experience with loss and death. This is a ghost story and so much more; it is an exploration of grief, remorse, loneliness, and human connection. Marcus and his aunt build a messy, imperfect life together that helps each of them envision a brighter future. Godwin is a master storyteller and cleverly weaves together stories that span decades and involve Marcus's great-grandparents, grandparents, parents, childhood best friend, and the quirky island inhabitants. This is a truly satisfying read.

Love and Ruin
Paula McLain
Release Date May 1
Reviewed by Linda

Paula McLain's latest novel explores Hemingway's relationship with his third wife, Martha Gellhorn, an independent, ambitious writer who would become one of the greatest war correspondents of the twentieth century. In 1937, Gellhorn travels to Madrid to cover the atrocities of the Spanish Civil War and tell the stories of ordinary people caught in the horrifying conflict. She is determined to prove herself as a substantial journalist in a field dominated by men. Hemingway is also covering the war and he and Gellhorn begin a passionate, unexpected affair. While reporting on the impending Second World War, they establish a home base in Cuba and eventually marry. Both of their professional careers blossom but Gellhorn becomes increasingly concerned about being in the personal and professional shadow of Hemingway. She struggles to maintain autonomy while passionately devoted to a complicated writer and must eventually make choices that are sure to cause heartache. 
McLain is a master of historical fiction and weaves a rich, inviting story against the backdrop of war and conflict in the mid-1900s. For all who enjoyed The Paris Wife and Circling The Sun, you will not be disappointed in this latest gift.

Heart Spring Mountain
Robin MacArthur
Reviewed by Phil

Robin MacArthur deftly weaves the lives of three generations of Vermont women into this marvelous story about the search for meaning, set against the background of an isolated farm in the mountains. It's a story of loss and of hope. It explores the frictions within families - the hurt caused and eventual healing.

This book is a treasure. It is absorbing, mesmerizing and deeply felt. I didn't want it to finish, but was compelled to read on to the satisfying end. The characters are real and well-developed, the settings evocative. This is the perfect read for a weekend by the fire. I was reminded of Elizabeth Strout's writing at its best.

Robin MacArthur lives and works on the Vermont farm where she was born. Her previous book was a collection of stories, Half Wild: Stories, published in 2016.

Madeline Miller
Reviewed by Phil

Circe is a captivating novel which retells the ancient Greek myths and legends from the perspective of Circe, daughter of Helios, the sun god, and Perse, a nymph. As a child, Circe discovers she has the power of witchcraft and can transform her enemies into monsters. As the result of a deal with Zeus in an effort to avoid warfare, Helios banishes Circe to the island of Aiaia. Here, she develops her witchcraft, taming the wild beasts that live on the island. Through the course of the story, we meet Odysseus, who arrives at Aiaia and fathers a child with Circe. We also encounter the Minotaur, and Daedalus and his son Icarus.

This is a fantastic read. It is way out of my normal reading genre, but it's so well written that I was drawn in totally to the intrigues of ancient Greece. For me, the book clarified the muddle that had been my vague understanding of the ancient stories. But the book stands alone, too, as a compelling and interesting story.

Madeline Miller studied the classics at Brown University. Her previous book, The Song of Achilles, was awarded the Orange Prize for Fiction.

A Column of Fire
Ken Follett
Reviewed by Phil
A Column of Fire begins in England in 1858 - a time of great religious conflict, when Protestants and Catholics jostle for power. With the coronation of Queen Elizabeth, Protestants momentarily have the upper hand, but the rest of Europe turns against the island nation. The book follows the life of Ned Willard, a spy in Queen Elizabeth's employ. Ned is a Protestant who falls in love with Margery Fitzgerald, daughter of a wealthy Catholic businessman. There are spies and plots to overthrow the queen, international intrigue, assassinations and petty rivalries.

This is a rich and complex story which brings 16th-century England to life. I was fascinated by the way the book reveals the history of that era, prompting me to look up details from lessons long forgotten.

A Column of Fire is the latest novel in Ken Follet's Kingsbridge series - the earlier books being The Pillars of the Earth and World Without End.

Points North
Howard Frank Mosher
Released January 2018
Reviewed by Linda

Points North is a collection of short stories about the Northeast Kingdom in Vermont - the people and places that inhabited the writing of Howard Frank Mosher for decades. Written a few weeks before his death in January of 2017, the collection centers around the Kinneson family and their public and private struggles in a small New England town. After learning of his lung cancer diagnosis, Mosher wrote, "I am happy to leave you all with the gift of what may be my best book in Points North." This book is beautifully-written with humor, compassion and heart - a gift for us all.

White Houses
Amy Bloom
To be released March 2018

Reviewed by Linda

White Houses is a fictionalized telling of the love story between Lorena Hickok and Eleanor Roosevelt. Hickok is a seasoned reporter who meets Eleanor Roosevelt in 1932 while reporting on Franklin Roosevelt's first presidential campaign. The women's connection initially develops into an intimate, passionate relationship that later evolves into a complicated, lasting love. The story is told from Hickok's perspective -- she has an unforgettable voice and shines a new light on historic events. Bloom has done a masterful job conveying the strong bond between these women and their unique roles in shaping the events of that time period. But more than anything, she has told a truly powerful love story.

Only Killers and Thieves
Paul Howarth
To be released February 2018
Reviewed by Phil

Paul Howarth is a British-Australian writer. Only Killers and Thieves is his first novel. The book skillfully evokes the harshness and brutality of the Australian Outback, the grim setting for this story of savagery and race, injustice and honour.

It is 1885, and a crippling drought threatens to ruin the McBride family. Their land is parched, their cattle starving. When the rain finally comes, it is a miracle that renews their hope for survival. But returning home from an afternoon swimming at a remote waterhole filled by the downpour, fourteen-year-old Tommy and sixteen-year-old Billy meet with a shocking tragedy.

Thirsting for vengeance against the man they believe has wronged them, the distraught brothers turn to the ruthless and cunning John Sullivan, the wealthiest landowner in the region and their father's former employer. Sullivan gathers a posse led by the dangerous and fascinating Inspector Edmund Noone and his Queensland Native Police, an infamous arm of British colonial power charged with the "dispersal" of indigenous Australians to "protect" white settler rights. As they ride across the barren outback in pursuit, their harsh and horrifying journey will have a devastating impact on Tommy, tormenting him for the rest of his life--and will hold enduring consequences for a young country struggling to come into its own.

Charles Frazier
To be released April, 2018
Reviewed by Phil

I read Charles Frazier’s earlier book, Cold Mountain, when I first moved to the mountains of North Carolina 10 years ago. It provided a great introduction to the history and culture of my new home. Frazier’s latest book, Varina, (to be released in April) returns once again to that time period. The book, a fictional retelling of parts of Varina Jefferson’s life, powerfully evokes the chaos and destruction in the aftermath of the civil war.

Seventeen-year-old Varina, the book’s namesake, marries the much older widower, Jefferson Davis, expecting to live out her life on a Mississippi plantation. Instead, her husband takes up politics, eventually becoming president of the Confederacy. As the confederacy falls, Varina, her children and a small band of helpers, flee Richmond and head for Florida, with a plan to take a boat to Cuba, and then on to Europe. With bounties on their heads, and the widespread belief that they are running off with the last of the Confederacy’s gold, the fugitives are chased across the country by motley groups of union soldiers and bounty hunters.

Central to the story is the relationship between Varina and James, a homeless boy of uncertain background whom Varina adopts on impulse after feeling guilty about abandoning a slave who was being sold away from her family. She raises James as one of her own, prompting many raised eyebrows amongst her friends and acquaintances, and he is part of the group that flees Richmond with her at the end of the war. The book begins with an elderly Varina, coming down to the lobby of the Saratoga Springs hotel where she lives to meet James, whom she last saw decades ago. Over the next few weeks, James visits Varina each Sunday, and Varina relates her experiences of their flight.

Through the telling, Frazier explores key questions about guilt and complicity and consequences, and examines the nature of ownership and property. This is a powerful read.

The Italian Teacher
Tom Rachman
To be released March 2018

Reviewed by Phil

Pinch has grown up in the shadow of his father, the internationally renowned artist Bear. When Bear abandons his family, Pinch attempts to gain his father’s attention by trying to be a painter himself. When that doesn’t work, Pinch sets out to write his father’s biography. But the task is too much for him, and, sadder, if not wiser, he finally settles into a job as an Italian teacher in London. Then Bear dies, and Pinch conceives a scheme to make his own mark on the world.

Tom Rachman’s earlier novel, The Imperfectionists (2010), was an international bestseller and has been translated into 25 languages. Rachman was born in London in but raised in Vancouver. He now lives in London.

The Flight Attendant
Chris Bohjalian
To be released March 2018
Reviewed by Phil

I am not sure how to classify this next book. Is it a thriller? Or a mystery? It’s Chris Bohjalian, so, regardless, it starts with a bang.

Cassie Bowden, the flight attendant of the title, wakes from a night of booze and sex to find the man with whom she partied the previous night is in the bed beside her. He is dead, his throat cut. The last thing Cassie remembers is sharing a shower with the man. Everything else is a blank. Cassie panics and runs from the hotel. She has a reputation for fast living and faster loving, and her flight attendant colleagues would have seen her flirting with the man on the flight into Dubai the day before. To cover her tracks, she spins a web of lies about her whereabouts the previous evening. But she quickly realizes that she, too, could be a target of the man's assassin...

And so the scene is set for a fast-paced novel of international crime, the temptations of alcohol, and the vagaries of memory. This is another great read from Vermont writer Chris Bohjalian.


Christine Mangan
Reviewed by Phil

Alice Shipley and Lucy Mason first meet as roommates their first semester at college. Their friendship develops quickly, to the exclusion of almost everyone else, until Alice meets Tom. Shortly thereafter, Alice starts to lose things, then there’s a tragic accident, and Alice’s life falls apart.

Years later, Alice has moved to Tangier with her husband John. Lucy arrives unannounced one day and moves in “for a few days”. Alice’s new life slowly unravels as she begins to remember some of the events at college.

The telling switches back and forth between the two women, to the point where they almost blur… This is a dark and compelling novel. Sinister. The book has already been optioned for a movie by George Clooney’s Smokehouse Pictures. For Bennington readers, there’s an added draw: The college campus in the novel is none other than Bennington College. Tangerine will be released in March 2018.

A Hundred Small Lessons
Ashley Hay
Reviewed by Phil

Ashley Hay is an Australian writer, currently living in Brisbane in Queensland.  A Hundred Small Lessons is set in Brisbane. Hay says the inspiration for the book comes from her own move from Sydney to Brisbane 9 years ago, and her imminent transition to the role of motherhood. Hay says she had to learn to navigate a new location and a new occupation at the same time.

Elsie Gormley, one of the main characters in A Hundred Small Lessons, lived in the same Brisbane house for 60 years. The house provides a focus for her memories: of marriage, of motherhood, of love… Worried for her safety, her family moves Elsie to a nursing home and sells her beloved house. Recent arrivals from Sydney, Lucy Kiss and her family snap up Elsie’s home and make it their own. Over the next few months, the two families’ stories crisscross in unforeseen ways as Hay weaves this rich and heart-warming story.

Hay says her book is an attempt to make the most of the tiny points of being and doing and connecting that make us who we are, and make us human. I think she has largely been successful at her attempt. This is a delightful book from a very talented writer.

The Fortunes
Peter Ho Davies
Reviewed by Phil

Through the lives of four people at different times in history, Peter Ho Davies's latest novel,The Fortunes, documents the Chinese American experience. Three of the stories involve actual historical figures, but the book is a fictional rendition of their lives.

The book begins at the time of the California Gold Rush and the building of the first transcontinental railways. The second story relates the life of Hollywood's first Chinese movie star and the isolation born of her exoticism. Next, we are asked to remember the life of Vincent Chin, mistaken for Japanese and beaten to death on the eve of his wedding. The fourth tells the story of a modern-day couple visiting China to adopt a baby. There's a sense of foreboding in this story - you just know something awful is going to happen, you're just not sure what. It's beautifully told.

The stories are absorbing, the writing deft: This is a thoroughly enjoyable book, with deep insights into what it's like to be "other." Thoughtful writing at its best.

Anything is Possible
Elizabeth Strout
Reviewed by Phil

I loved Elizabeth Strout's earlier book Olive Kitteridge, but was disappointed with her follow up, The Burgess Boys. The latter was a fine book in its own right, just not as sharp and crackling asOlive. Anything is Possible marks a brilliant return to form. Former Amgash resident Lucy Barton, now living in New York, has just published a book. News of the book triggers memories in the minds of various people in the small Illinois town where Lucy grew up. There is sadness, hope, and love in the tales Strout so deftly weaves from the lives of this small town's residents. This is such a beautifully written book, moving and thoughtful and rich. I can barely wait for her next one!

Fredrik Backman
Reviewed by Phil

Small town politics and pride set the scene for Backman's latest novel, Beartown. Loyalty is the underlying theme of this marvelous book and Backman poses the question: just where do our loyalties lie when everything we believe in is threatened? Beartown is a hockey town: The mood of the residents ebbs and flows with the weekend performances of the high school hockey team. This year, the team is on a winning streak, and the team players are heroes who can do no wrong. Until... (There are echoes of small-town America here, and the glory piled on the youthful shoulders of the high school football team.) This is a beautiful book. It touches so gently on trust, and love, and respect, and where we fit in, or don't. I read it in one sitting.

The Railwayman's Wife
Ashley Hay
Reviewed by Linda

The Railwayman's Wife takes place in 1948 in a Sydney suburb by the sea. Three people are struggling with great loss and search for peace in the town's library. The novel is written in clear, shining prose and with an eloquent understanding of sorrow and loss. Each character is grappling with a common question -- how do I continue to live?  While the story may break your heart at times, it ultimately celebrates love and human connection as well as nature's beauty.

Min Jin Lee
Reviewed by Phil

Pachinko tells the story of a Korean family over three generations as they move from Korea to Japan in the early 1900s. Sunja, the proud daughter of an impoverished family, falls pregnant to a married man who wants to set her up in a home as his Korean mistress. Sunja refuses. She is saved from her plight by a young missionary who marries her and takes her to Japan, where he intends to join his brother who works as a missionary in Osaka. This is a rich and moving tale, with great insights into Korean and Japanese culture, as well as into the trials and tribulations of life as a member of a minority group.

Lillian Boxfish Takes A Walk
Kathleen Rooney
Reviewed by Linda


Lillian Boxfish was the highest-paid advertising woman in the United States in the 1930s and early 1940s.  The novel takes place on New Year's Eve in 1984 as Lillian bundles up for a walk around New York City.  We join her as she visits old haunts in the city and reflects on the many joys, challenges and heartaches of her 85 years.  Lillian is witty, bright and candid.  This book is a joy to read -- particularly for those familiar with NYC and its transformation over many decades. It is also a stark reminder of the societal expectaions and limitations for women in the workforce in the 1930s and 1940s.  Lillian is inspired by the work of the poet and ad woman Margaret Fishback who was the real highest-paid female advertising copywriter in the world during the 1930s.

Reviews by title

Above the Waterfall
Ron Rash
Reviewed by Phil

Set in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Southern Appalachia, this lyrical novel unwinds the tangled histories of small town residents - their guilt for past actions, the debts they owe for past kindnesses - and how these play out today. This is Ron Rash at his best. At times, the evocative prose reminds me of Barbara Kingsolver's Prodigal Summer.

All Is Not Forgotten
Wendy Walker
Reviewed by Phil

Small town politics, illicit affairs, reputations at risk - All Is Not Forgotten has it all. The book begins with a brutal rape, although this not graphically portrayed, simply reported as fact. The victim, Jenny, is treated with a radical new medication that wipes out her memory of the event, but leaves her anxious and despairing. After attempting suicide, Jenny receives therapy from a local counsellor and slowly begins to recover her memory of the event. The story is told from the therapist's perspective. He is also treating Jenny's father who becomes obsessed with finding the rapist, and her mother, who is coming to terms with an affair she had as a young girl. The structure of the book is a little unusual but, once you get the hang of it, this is a thrilling read. I could not put it down and read it in one sitting.

All the Light We Cannot See
Anthony Doerr
Reviewed by Beth

By coincidence, Anthony Doerr was eating ice cream with his son in Paris when he learned that his latest novel had won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. What was the coincidence? “All the Light We Cannot See” takes place in occupied France during World War II; Doerr was in Paris in April to promote the book’s release in France. Indeed, the entire novel could be said to center around an intricate set of coincidences. Its main characters are a blind French girl who flees occupied Paris for the ancient coastal town of Saint-Malo with her father, and an orphaned German boy who is a genius with numbers and with radio - the ultimate technology of the time. The boy is enchanted by scientific broadcasts in French that he hears on his homemade short-wave receiver in Germany; the girl’s grand-uncle in Saint-Malo is also a radio inventor and expert. Doerr draws the two protagonists together at the time of the bombardment of Saint-Malo in August of 1944. His short, evocative chapters tell us how they and their families, colleagues, comrades, and enemies are experiencing the events swirling around them. We are transported across the continent and backward and forward in time, getting harrowing glimpses of the war and finely wrought insights into the people on both sides of the conflict. The Pulitzer Prize committee called it an “imaginative and intricate” work. It is also a satisfying story about redemption in the face of our greatest human failing.

The Atrocity Archives
Charles Stross
Reviewed by John 

Bob Howard is a British civil servant whose job is to prevent incursions into our reality by hubgry Lovecraftian monsters. The job involves a surprising amount of paperwork. Stross deftly weaves workplace humor with alien horrors to make a unique and satisfying read.

Jeff Smith
Reviewed by John

Crammed with memorable characters, from cow-racing Gran'ma Ben to scheming Phoncible Bone to queche-loving rat-creatures, Bone is a charming and engaging introduction to epic fantasy. The series is by turns funny, moving, and deadly serious, but never less than brilliantly written.
Bring Up the Bodies
Hilary Mantel
Reviewed by Phil
I enjoyed Wolf Hall, but enjoyed this sequel much more. This is a great read; a fascinating exploration of the machinations of Thomas Cromwell as he maneuvers to remove Anne Boleyn as Henry's queen. I look forward to reading the final book of the series.
Circling the Sun
Paula McLain
Reviewed by Linda

Brought to Kenya from England as a child and then abandoned by her mother, Beryl Markham is raised by both her father and the native Kipsigis tribe who share his estate. Her unconventional upbringing transforms Beryl into a bold young woman with a fierce love of all things wild and an inherent understanding. Set against the majestic landscape of early-twentieth-century Africa, McLain's powerful tale reveals the extraordinary adventures of a woman before her time, the exhilaration of freedom and its cost, and the tenacity of the human spirit. For those who enjoyed Out of Africa by Karen Blixen, this is an opportunity to revisit the characters and see them from a different perspective. A great read.

A Divided Spy
Charles Cumming
Released in February

Thomas Kell has devoted his life to MI6, the British spy agency, but the loss of a lover during a botched mission has left him embittered and hoping for vengeance. A chance encounter at an Egyptian hotel provides Kell with an opportunity for revenge. He sets out to recruit a top Russian spy, Alexander Minasian. As the plot thickens, Kell finds it more and more difficult to know whether Minasian is being genuine, or is himself playing Kell. Then Minasian offers Kell information about a planned terrorist attack in Britain…

Cumming has a reputation as a modern day John le Carre. His slow, but meticulous, plot development certainly reminds me of some of le Carre’s books. But, once the initial pieces have all been laid out, the pace increases and you’re hooked. If you like books of this genre, then this is a great read.

Exit West
Moshin Hamid
Released March 7, 2017
Reviewed by Phil

In a country teetering on the brink of civil war, two young people meet: sensual, fiercely independent Nadia and gentle, restrained Saeed. They embark on a furtive love affair, thrust into premature intimacy by the unrest roiling their city. When it explodes, turning familiar streets into a patchwork of checkpoints and bomb blasts, they begin to hear whispers about doors that can whisk people far away, if perilously and for a price. As violence and the threat of violence escalate, Nadia and Saeed decide that they no longer have a choice. Leaving their homeland and their old lives behind, they find a door and step through. . .

This is a beautifully written book about love and loss, the building of new lives and the gentle letting go of the past.

Flight  Behavior
Barbara Kingsolver
Reviewed by Kate

Kingsolver never fails to provide a thoughtful and intriguing narrative. In Flight Behavior she tackles the complexities of climate change with a timely story of the endangered Monarch butterfly. As readers we are propelled with Dellarobia Turnbow, a discontented farmwife, from ignorance to undrstanding of the delicate balance of ecosystems on our fragile planet and how we are inexorably linked to all things.

The Flying Circus
Susan Crandall
Reviewed by John

Perfect summer reading. Cora, Henry and Gil are all running from something. What better way to escape in 1920s America than to put together a barnstorming act? A book of love and daring, set against the beautiful tapestry of a nearly forgotten era in American history.

Mary Shelley
Reviewed by John

If you are only familiar with the Boris Karloff film, this will be quite a surprise. Mary Shelley's book is amazing and frightening and surprisingly poignant. The creature is intelligent, sensitive, even eloquent, and terrifying in his anger. Nearly two hundred years old, Frankenstein still fascinates and thrills.

The Guest Room
Chris Bohjalian
Reviewed by Phil

Richard Carter's safe suburban life - wife, daughter, house, career - is torn asunder when he hosts a bachelor party for his irresponsible brother. Before the party is over, there are two people dead and Richard is left battling to save his marriage, the respect of his daughter, and his job. Interspersed with Richard's story is the story of Alexandra, an Armenian sex slave closely guarded and chaperoned by the Russian mob. We learn how she was tricked into her role, trafficked, manipulated and controlled until... Ah, you'll have to read the book to find out!

The Goldfinch
Donna Tartt
Reviewed by Brittni
This novel elegantly and beautifully explores the inevitable grip of death on life through the epic journey of its central character, Theo, as he searches for meaning in loss, love, friendship, and abandonment. Lush in its description of classic art, music and woodworking, Tartt's Pulitzer Prize winner promises an intelligent glimpse into humanity's attempt to grapple with its own condition.
Go Set a Watchman
Harper Lee
Reviewed by Brittni

Go Set a Watchman is a novel of real thematic significance, serving not just as a treatise about race, prejudice, and privilege, but, importantly, as a discussion of independence and its place in personal and societal growth. "Every man's island, Jean Louise, every man's watchman, is his own conscience," Jean Louise's Uncle Jack tells her in one of the culminating scenes. His statement is a signpost for Jean Louise's personal journey through fighting societal issues and breaking from the conscience of her father. Both are necessary for her emergence into adulthood and make Go Set a Watchman an excellent companion to To Kill a Mockingbird.
Graveyard Book
Neil Gaiman
Reviewed by John
Nobody ('Bod' for short) Owens was raised in a graveyard. His friends are ghosts, the first things he reads are gravestones and epitaphs. He has a strange life, with Silas, his taciturn guardian, watching over him. Sometimes, Silas's watchfulness is not enough, and Bod wanders into danger. Another macabre and wonderful book from Neil Gaiman.
The Haunting of Hill House
Shirley Jackson
Reviewed by John
Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House is one of the greatest haunted house novels ever written. Southern Vermont's most famous writer, Jackson's prose in this book is powerful and sinister. Wonderfully atmospheric and full of rich characterization, this book gave me the creeps.
The House at Riverton
Kate Morton
Reviewed by Phil

Grace Bradley is just a girl when she begins working as a servant for the Hartford family at Riverton House. For years, her life is inextricably tied up with the Hartford family's daughters, Hannah and Emmeline.  At a society party in the summer of 1924, a young poet shoots himself. The only witnesses are Hannah and Emmeline. Years later, when Grace is living in a nursing home, she receives a visit from a film director who is making a film about the events of that summer. The director takes Grace back to Riverton House for one last visit, awakening her memories of the vibrant twenties and the secret that Grace has kept all her life.

The House at Riverton was Kate Morton's debut novel but you would never know it: She writes with such skill and dexterity. Her characters are rich and well-developed, and the plot is finely woven. If you liked Remains of the Day or Downton Abbey, you will like this book too, describing, as it does, the end of an era.
The Hummingbird
Stephen Kiernan
Reviewed by Phil

The Hummingbird relates the story of Deborah Birch, a seasoned hospice nurse, and her relationship with her husband Michael, who has returned from deployment in Iraq haunted by nightmares, anxiety and rage. Deborah’s primary patient at the hospice is Barclay, and, as Barclay begrudgingly comes to trust Deborah, the stories he shares from World War II guide her to find a way to help her husband Michael battle his demons. The novel is a story about coming to terms with both life and death, and with feelings of guilt carried from actions in the past. It's a beautifully-rendered book. I thoroughly enjoyed it and look forward to reading more of Stephen's work.

If I Forget You
Thomas Christopher Greene
Reviewed by Phil

If I Forget You is the story of Henry Gold, an impoverished student, and Margot Fuller, daughter of a wealthy and privileged family. Henry and Margot meet and fall in love at college, but are driven apart by a freak accident and Margot's powerful parents. Twenty one years later, they bump into each other on the streets of Manhattan. Their chance encounter stirs vivid memories from the past but also results in the uncovering of a terrible secret. Will their love survive? This was a well-structured book, beautifully written and makes for a very satisfying read.


An Irish Country Doctor Series
Patrick Taylor
Reviewed by Lucy

A rural Irish GP's answer to James Herriot, with spot-on fun/poignant/frustrating/heroic and surprisingly informative yet entertaining vignettes. Taylor's characters are sympathetic and memorable. The books are liberally sprinkled with facts of history, politics, animal husbandry, household tips and recipes, and much more...

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos
Dominic Smith
Reviewed by Phil

Wow. What a satisfying read. This novel spans three time periods and three locations.First, 17th-century Amsterdam, when Sara de Vos becomes the first woman to be admitted to the artists' guild. Then, 1950s New York, when an expatriate Australian student Ellie Shipley is corrupted by a shady art dealer and charmed by a wealthy lawyer, Marty de Groot, a descendent of the original owner of what is thought to be de Vos's last painting. Finally, Sydney in 2000, when the guilt of the past comes back to haunt. This is a fabulous book, beautifully written, with rich characters and a level of suspense that captivates.

Leave Me
Gayle Forman
Reviewed by Linda

Maribeth has a full life – a husband, four-year-old twins, and a challenging job as a magazine editor. She suddenly is faced with a health scare and comes face-to-face with mortality and the life choices she has made. This novel explores one woman’s journey as she runs away from her life in reaction to her feelings about the claustrophobia of marriage and her ambivalence about motherhood. At times humorous and at other times deeply raw and revealing, Gayle Forman provides a big-hearted exploration of one woman’s journey back to herself and the characters she meets along the way.

Leaving Time
Jodi Picoult
Reviewed by Lucy

Deeply affecting research on cognition and emotion in elephants, with  by turns entertaining portraits of interesting characters (both human and animal) and their interrelationships... and one heck of a creepy twist at the end.

Lillian Boxfish Takes A Walk
Kathleen Rooney
Reviewed by Linda


Lillian Boxfish was the highest-paid advertising woman in the United States in the 1930s and early 1940s.  The novel takes place on New Year's Eve in 1984 as Lillian bundles up for a walk around New York City.  We join her as she visits old haunts in the city and reflects on the many joys, challenges and heartaches of her 85 years.  Lillian is witty, bright and candid.  This book is a joy to read -- particularly for those familiar with NYC and its transformation over many decades. It is also a stark reminder of the societal expectaions and limitations for women in the workforce in the 1930s and 1940s.  Lillian is inspired by the work of the poet and ad woman Margaret Fishback who was the real highest-paid female advertising copywriter in the world during the 1930s.

Little Peach
Peggy Kern
Reviewed by Phil

“What do you do if you’re in trouble?” Michelle’s grandfather drills the advice into her. “Find a cop. Find a lady.” Michelle lives in Philadelphia with her grandfather and her drug-addicted mother. When her grandfather dies, the attentions of her mother’s latest boyfriend cause Michelle to run. She spends the last of her money on a bus ticket to New York where she hopes to catch up with an old school friend, Erica. Erica lives in the notorious Pink Houses project. Michelle is overwhelmed by her first exposure to New York. Hungry, and out of money, she does not know where to turn. Devon is a friendly smile amongst all the strangers in the busy bus station. He offers Michelle a meal, and drives her out to the Pink Houses, where Michelle quickly realizes that there is little hope of finding her friend. At a loss for a place to stay, she finally agrees to go back to Devon’s place on Coney Island. Here, she meets Kat and Baby, and is quickly initiated into the world of drugs and prostitution. Devon is her “daddy”, and she is his “Little Peach”. In researching the material for the book, Kern spent time with a New York detective, and interviewed two survivors of child prostitution extensively. The result is an authentic picture of the horrors of human trafficking. Kern handles the abuse and drug addiction deftly; her depiction of these is never gratuitous. This compelling novel is a wake up call to all of us about how easily the vulnerable are exploited.

A Man Called Ove
Fredrik Backman
Reviewed by Phil

Ove has a medical condition: His heart is too big, but he doesn't know it. We watch as Ove slowly transforms from curmudgeon to uncle, to beloved grandfather. This is a story of love, and loss; of overcoming grief, and learning to live once again. It's a rich and rewarding novel, at times desperately sad and at others outrageously funny. A real treasure.

Hillary Jordan
Reviewed by Phil

Mudbound tells the story of the McAllans' struggle to make ends meet on their isolated farm, and of the Jacksons, their black sharecroppers. It's a dramatic read, and one that deals with race relations in the post-second world war South in a passionate and thought-provoking manner.

My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She's Sorry
Fredrik Backman
Reviewed by Phil

I loved Backman's earlier novel, A Man Called Ove, so persevered with this one when the first few chapters seemed a bit slow. I am so glad I did. Chapter 14 was incredibly moving, but would not have made sense without reading the earlier chapters. This is a beautiful book about the complexity of relationships. It delves deeply into how people's experiences shape the way they are perceived by those around them. It also explores difference, and the stigma so often attached to it, but wryly observes that if a sufficient number of people are different, no one has to be normal. A great read.

My Name Is Lucy Barton
Elizabeth Strout
Reviewed by Linda

This book is amazing. I loved Olive Kitteridge and did not think Elizabeth Strout could write another novel that was so brilliant. I was wrong – this book is just as good or better. Her writing is delicate, insightful, heartbreaking, warm, shocking and compassionate. It is so simple in form yet so engaging and complex. I imagine Strout sitting at her desk, looking out at the landscape around her . . . finding the perfect words over and over again. She is a truly gifted artist. Clear your afternoon, make a cup of tea, grab a blanket and curl up in your favorite reading spot – this book is meant to be savored.

Kent Haruf
Reviewed by Phil

This delightfully realized novel weaves together the stories of the people of the fictional town of Holt, Colorado. There's a lonely schoolteacher, struggling to raise his sons after his wife has left, a couple of old farrmers wise beyond their years, a runaway high school girl, pregnant and desperate. Haruf gently reveals the interection of their lives, their struggles, their compassion, their humanity. Novel writing at its best.

Viet Thanh Nguyen
Released February 7, 2017
Reviewed by Phil

Viet Thanh Nguyen's The Sympathizer was one of the most widely-praised novels of 2015, and the winner of several awards, including the Pulitzer Prize. His next fiction book, The Refugees, is a haunting collection of  stories crafted over the last 20 years. Drawing on his own experience as a refugee and immigrant, Nguyen describes the dislocation of the refugee, living as he/she does between two worlds, the adopted country and the country of birth. I have just finished one story, The Americans, which blew me away: It's one of the best descriptions of aging and love, of frustration and despair, I have read. But each story in this collection is a gift to be savored.

Here is an NPR interview with Viet Thanh Nguyen: Viet Thanh Nguyen

Saturn Run 
John Sandford and Ctein
Reviewed by Phil

I am a science fiction traditionalist. Growing up, I read all the classics: Dune; 2001; I, Robot; Ringworld. Then something happened to the genre. As each new author appeared on the scene, there seemed to be less fantastical science and more magical fantasy. Still imaginative, but, for me, not quite so appealing. So it was with great pleasure that I stumbled across John Sandford and Ctein's new book, Saturn Run. It's good old science fiction, with a story set in 2066. There's excitement and adventure, political intrigue, and even alien first contact. The space race takes on new meaning as ships from China and the US rush to be the first to reach the rings of Saturn where an alien presence has been detected. It's a good read, fast-paced, like all Sandford's books, and satisfying in its approach to technology still to be invented.

The Secret River
Kate Grenville
Reviewed by Phil

With his family, William Thornhill has been transported to Australia for the “term of his natural life”. After some years as a convict, Thornhill is able to buy his freedom and moves, with his family, to settle on the banks of a river north of Sydney. Other settlers have already laid claim to portions of the river, and they have uneasy relations with the original inhabitants – the Aboriginal people who have lived and hunted on the banks of the river for millennia. This book describes the first encounters between settlers and the Aboriginal people, and the conflicted approaches and feelings different settlers have towards the original inhabitants. It’s a powerful novel, heart-rending and richly thoughtful. It’s the first novel in a trilogy (The Lieutenant, 2008; Sarah Thornhill, 2011), but stands alone. Kate Grenville dedicated this novel to the Aboriginal people of Australia.

The Signature of All Things
Elizabeth Gilbert
Reviewed by Linda

Liz Gilbert set out to create a work of fiction that reflects the very best of nineteenth-century novels - and succeeds brilliantly. The story revolves around Alma Whittaker who becomes a world-renowned expert on mosses. She grapples with many of the scientific and spiritual questions of the nineteenth century as well as universal matters of the heart.

A Spool of Blue Thread
Anne Tyler
Reviewed by Linda

Anne Tyler has done it again. As the book jacket so aptly states, Tyler tells the story of the Whitshank family with “all the insight, humor, and generosity of spirit that are the hallmarks of [her] work.” Four generations of the Whitshank family struggle with their legacy – family secrets, disappointments, love and loss, failures and successes, and the familial roles that have shaped each of them.

Station Eleven
Emily St. John Mandel
Reviewed by Lucy

A postapocalyptic tale set in a bleak-seeming future in which the assorted ragtag band of itinerant actors and musiciams who make up The Traveling Symphony embody the resilience of what's left of humanity - a humanity which may not, in fact, despite all appearances, be doomed after all.

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry
Gabrielle Zevin
Reviewed by Phil

A.J. Fikry owns and runs a small independent bookstore on an island off the coast of New England.
 Things are not going well for AJ or the store: He has lost his wife Nic, the love of his life; his most valuable book has also gone missing; and sales are at an all-time low. The discovery of an unusual package left in the bookstore opens a new chapter in AJ's life. He learns to live again, to love, and to celebrate life and the people in it. This is a delightful book, warm and endearing. Thoughtful, too. I read it in one sitting and didn't want it to end.

The Sympathizer 
Viet Thanh Nguyen
Reviewed by Phil

This is Nguyen’s debut novel for which he won the Pulitzer Prize. It has recently come out in paperback and is on the bestsellers list.

The narrator, Captain, as we come to know him, is a communist double agent who “fled” to the US as Saigon fell. There, he continues to report back to his superiors on the efforts of the Vietnamese diaspora to build an army to reinvade Vietnam. But the captain is double in more than one sense – he is half-French, born out of a relationship between a young Vietnamese woman and a catholic priest. This background gives him unique perspectives on identity and culture, on love and belonging.The Sympathizer is a crackling read, with language that is colorful and exciting. Here's a taste. The Captain has just noticed that the clock in the Vietnamese restaurant in LA he is visiting is set to the wrong time:

Refugee, exile immigrant – whatever species of displaced human we are, we did not simply live in two cultures… displaced people also lived in two time zones, the here and the there, the present and the past, being as we were reluctant time travelers. But while science fiction imagined time travelers moving forward or backward in time, this timepiece demonstrated a different chronology. The open secret of the clock, naked for all to see, was that we were only going in circles. p199

In recounting the plight of the boat people fleeing the fall of Vietnam, this book provides a timely reminder of the modern day refugee crisis being played out in Syria and Europe. A powerful read.

The Thing about Jellyfish
Ali Benjamin
Reviewed by Linda

I love this book! Suzy is a smart girl – she knows lots of things her classmates don't know – and has endless curiosity. She also is entering the confusing world of middle school and feels out of place. When she loses her best friend, she struggles with grief and making sense of it all. This is a beautiful, funny, insightful work of children's fiction.

When the Sky is Like Lace
Elinor Horwitz
Reviewed by Linda

Islandport Press has reissued this gorgeous children's book by Elinor Horwitz and illustrated by Barbara Cooney. The story is l
yrical and magical and makes one long for the possibilities found on a clear summer evening. The watercolor illustrations are warm and playful. This is a book to be shared with readers of all ages.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves
Karen Joy Fowler
Reviewed by Linda

This is a book that stays with you. It breaks your heart while exploring a family's choices that are filled with good intentions but leave lasting scars on all who are involved. It is quirky and beautifully written.

The Yellow Car
Toni Powell
Illustrated by Toni and Phil Powell
Reviewed by Linda

"Late one night, in a quiet suburban street, a yellow car drove into my life and changed it. This is the story of what happened..."
Toni and Phil live on the Sunshine Coast in Queensland, Australia. Their book is fun and insightful - a real treat for those of us who get stuck in needless worry. The illustrations are gorgeous and are guaranteed to leave you smiling. Toni is an educator and motivational speaker on the subject of gratitude.