50 BOOKS FOR 2018

Book Number 22

Little Fires EverywhereLittle Fires Everywhere


Celeste Ng


Little Fires Everywhere is an apt name for a novel that deals with so many volatile facets of life and relationships. Ng skillfully introduces many family and personal issues through a neatly woven network of subplots.

The Richardson family lives a seemingly comfortable life in idyllic Shaker Heights but each of them has secrets and yearnings that influence their behavior. When Mia Warren and her daughter Pearl arrive and settle into the Richardson’s rental house, everyone’s life is affected. Mia is an artist whose past is a mystery. Pearl is eager to finally have a permanent home. The Richardson children, Lexie, Trip, Moody, and Izzy are attracted to Mia and Pearl, which upsets the entire family dynamic. The plot evolves through many twists and turns while exposing and examining the main theme of the bonds between mothers and daughters.

There is much to commend this book. There is a lot going on, the writing is easy and interesting, the events are thought-provoking. The descriptions of place, action, and art were all interesting and well done. I found the narrative voice like that of a  storyteller, moving point of view from character to character, giving details of each person’s background, and sometimes even revealing the characters’ actions or feelings in their future. Sometimes I admired Ng’s writing style and sometimes I found it a bit distracting.

I wasn’t a fan of the way the novel started with the climax of events. It is a trend now to start in the middle or end where the most dramatic event occurs. I sometimes feel like this is manipulative. I don’t need a disaster to suck me in. I like a build up to the big event. In this case, I didn’t know anything about the characters, but their reactions to the event caused me to dislike them. They all seemed to say “I knew this would happen.” It left me thinking, why didn’t you do something to prevent it and what was your part in it?

My second objection was the implausibility of some of the things that happened. There were too many times I thought, how could this be? it isn’t that simple.

The open-ended conclusion leaves room for lots of speculation. The reader can choose how things progress for everyone, or they can be left wondering. Will there be a sequel?




50 BOOKS FOR 2018

Book Number 21

The English MajorFront Cover


Jim Harrison



The novel, The English Major, is part road trip, part reminiscence, part coming of age (or working through a mid-life crisis.)

Sixty-year-old Cliff is at loose ends. His nearly forty year marriage has fallen apart, he’s lost the property he’d farmed for 25 years, and his dog Lola has died. He decides to leave northern Michigan and visit all 50 states, a quest without a concrete purpose, but one that will hopefully help him figure out his life. Much of the journey involves thinking of his past, philosophizing about life in general, enjoying nature, and taking pictures of cows.  And sex (thinking about, philosophizing over, enjoying, and taking mental pictures.)

Cliff manages to travel from Michigan through the upper tier of states and down to California. Along the way, he picks up a former student and, at first, delights in her nymphomaniacal offerings. But he also learns his physical limits. He has a similar reckoning when he indulges in crossing the desert without water, fishing for long hours, and climbing a mountain.

Cliff misses his dog, more than his wife.  He needs a purpose in life and concludes he would like to use his major in English to create “art.” He doesn’t finish his journey and ends up pretty much where he started, but he is okay with that. Maybe it is a “coming of ‘geezer’ age” conclusion.

When I started reading this book, I was immediately taken by Jim Harrison’s writing style. This is one story where I detected and particularly enjoyed the specific “voice” of the author. His down-home narration and dialogue felt very rural Michigan to me. I loved the premise of Cliff visiting all fifty states (tossing a piece from his childhood U. S. A. puzzle out the window as he exited each state.) He threw in some information (Facts of the 50 States) with entry into each new state. It was a fun gimmick.

The drawbacks: Cliff’s obsession with sex became boring after appearing in so many scenes. I don’t know if all men think this way, but perhaps a man at sixty experiences a surge of testosterone to warn him the biological clock is running down. The sex obsession and the quest to “find” what his future life should become remind me of a teenage angst-ridden coming of age story.

Some might argue that the story, like Cliff, rambles and ends up nowhere. Cliff doesn’t change much, but he’s okay with that, and so am I.



50 BOOKS FOR 2018

The Girl Who Smiled Beads: A Story of War and What Comes After by [Wamariya, Clemantine, Weil, Elizabeth]Book Number 20:

The Girl Who Smiled Beads


Clemantine Wamariya and Elizabeth Weil


This is a memoir—A Story of War and What Comes After.

At age six, Clemantine and her sister, Claire, flee their Rwandan home to escape the genocide of over 800,000 Tutsi by Hutu extremists. For six years, Clemantine and Claire (who was fifteen years old when they began their journey) wandered through seven countries. They stayed in refugee camps which were often as dangerous as being on the run. Claire was enterprising and found ways to earn food, clothing, money–items needed for survival. Clemantine learned to avoid danger and to contribute to their lives together. She cleaned, cooked, waited in long lines for water and food, and eventually provided most of the care of Claire’s baby even though she was only eight years old.

The story alternates between the hardships in Africa and Clemantine’s experiences in the United States from age twelve. In the U. S. she is taken in by a kind family which provides her with much more than basic essentials. Clemantine decides to take part in American life, earning good grades, joining school activities, and trying to fit in. All the while she feels like she is faking it.

Her story is not just about the events and incidences that occur, but much of it deals with Clemantine’s emotions and her difficulty coming to terms with the trauma of the past. She feels empty, unable to trust anyone, lacking an identity. She goes through the motions and achieves a great deal, but never is able to connect herself to anyone or anything.

Clemantine’s personal journey is astounding and heartbreaking. Her introspection is vivid. She has a good grasp intellectually of the effects of trauma but is unable to cope emotionally with the loss of her childhood.

Clemantine Wamariya is a remarkable woman who continues to work as a peace advocate. Her story is well worth reading.



50 BOOKS FOR 2018

Book Number 19:

The Woman in the WindowThe Woman in the Window: A Novel by [Finn, A. J.]


A.J. Finn



Anna Fox is plagued with agoraphobia and alcoholism. In spite of this, she manages a life for herself while trapped in her home. She pops pills and drinks gallons of wine yet somehow is lucid enough to play chess online, watch countless old noir movies, advise others in a chat room, and spy on her neighbors. When Anna believes she has witnessed a murder, she has difficulty convincing anyone that what she claims is not a product of her imagination fueled by hallucination, drugs, alcohol, and paranoia.

Finn has written an intriguing psychological thriller that kept me rapt. The narrator is Anna herself and she describes everything she sees, feels, hears, and thinks in vivid detail. Although I tired of her drinking and wanted to yell at her to pull herself together, I could feel and understand what she was going through.

I’m not a solver of mysteries and at times believed there was no mystery at all—Anna was delusional. Some of the mystery was about why she lived apart from her daughter and husband and what had driven her to become agoraphobic. Anna slowly unveils all the truth.

I loved the way the author paced this story. In scenes where Anna is endangered, the pace is like a heartbeat, pounding ever faster and harder as the tension rises. The description of agoraphobia seemed authentic and led me to a greater understanding of the terror someone suffering the condition faces.

There are twists to the plot, some easy to suspect, many not. The conclusion satisfactorily ties everything up.

A good character-driven thriller.

50 BOOKS FOR 2018

Book Number 18:Murder in the Secret Garden (A Book Retreat Mystery) by [Adams, Ellery]

Murder in the Secret Garden: A Book Retreat Mystery


Ellery Adams

Jane Steward, owner and hostess of the book-themed Storyton Hall resort, has her hands full with the arrival of the Medieval Herbalists and the wedding of one of the guests. She balances hosting, managing the resort, raising rambunctious twin boys, and being a friend of everyone in her charming village. When she discovers a body floating in the river, life becomes ever more complicated. Two murders, a stolen book, and a mysterious hermit create an interesting puzzle.

This story is replete with vivid descriptions of people, places, and events. Topics include books, plants (many poisonous), and medicine. The characters all have intriguing pasts and interesting professions. Jane has a cadre of assistants who protect her and aid in the investigation of the crimes.

The author employs twists and turns which serve to keep the reader guessing. The detailed writing makes each aspect of the story easy to envision. The implausability of some of the characters’ backgrounds did not detract from the story but added to the fun.

I enjoyed meeting the characters of Storyton and the herbologists. The solution to the crimes was satisfying as was the outcome for everyone involved.

I recommend this mystery to anyone looking for a well-written, fun read.


50 BOOKS FOR 2018

Book Number 17

My Two Years in the Priest Corpsmy two years in the priest corps (ebook)-joe novara-0010000018867


Joe Novara


A quick review of an unpublished book.

Joe Novara’s memoir of his journey to, through, and out of the priesthood is filled with information about the Catholic Church during the Vatican II era and the processes leading up to ordination. But it primarily a series of recollections and introspections about his choices. It is a tale of a young boy enamored with the church and the idea of serving its people. And it is the story of his disillusionment.

As always, Joe’s writing is clear, concise, and thought-provoking. His preface indicates he chose to write about what he learned about what not to do. And there are brief mentions of his life after the priesthood which hint that he leads his life on what he had learned.

This satisfying, well-written collection of anecdotes could only be improved by giving a little bit more. Although a memoirist with a purpose is the final decision maker on what to include and emphasize, I would have been interested in the influences his immediate family had on his becoming a priest and their reactions when he left the church. I’d also find it interesting to know how he coped with the “civilian” world after leaving the structured and unique world of the priesthood.

I’m sorry this book isn’t available for more people to read.

50 BOOKS FOR 2018

Book Number 16

Killers of the Flower MoonKillers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by [Grann, David]


David Grann


This non-fiction account of the Osage Indian nation during the 1920s was a story I had not heard before. I was fascinated to learn about the development of reservations and government interference with the daily life of the Native Americans. Through a shrewd treaty, the Osage retained more of their land than many other tribes and kept ownership of the oil and mineral rights forever. During the 1920s the oil boom turned the Osage into the richest people per capita in the world. A series of unsolved murders of Osage caused the new head of the Bureau of Investigation, J. Edgar Hoover, to assign new agents to the territory with the express purpose of solving the crimes. What follows is a methodical unraveling of details, separating deception from fact, speculation from truth, and digging deep for answers. This is a story of greed, crime, and corruption at its worst.

I am impressed by David Grann’s extensive research. His diligence uncovered and pieced together all the elements of this period in history. With the information, he weaves an interesting story rather than a recitation of facts. The dry details and statistics are balanced with stories of the personal background of the criminals, the investigators, and the Osage people.

Once the major crime is exposed and the criminals are tried (with many obstacles blocking a fair resolution), I thought the story should end. But Grann goes on to briefly relate what happened to many of the principals of the story—information I appreciated. He also tells of how he conducted research and how he uncovered more layers of the story. The information he found reveals a much more extensive problem than previously thought. The part our own government played in this sad historical event could be used as a cautionary tale today (but I doubt it will be.)

I recommend this book for its entertainment value as well as its educational value.