South of Broad

by Pat Conroy, 2009, Random House, New York

This is an interesting book about a person growing up in Charleston, South Carolina, and his relationships with other individuals in his life.  It is well-written and provides a sense of living in Charleston.  Some of the passages in the book are actually quite beautiful.

The plot provides a measure of suspense as there is an individual who is intent on killing the main character and all of his friends.

The characters in the novel are interesting, but, with the exception of the main character, tend to be a bit one-dimensional.  The depression, verging on insanity at times, gives the main character some added depth which doesn’t seem to be present in some the others.  The story is told in first-person which allows the reader to become much closer to him.

I enjoyed reading this book very much, and, while it may not be an all-time great literary accomplishment, this enjoyment allowed my to rate the book quite high. 4 stars

To Capture What We Cannot Keep

by Beatrice Colin, 2016, Flatiron Books, New York

This book is a story about the primary architect of the Eiffel Tower and the building of the tower is the backdrop of the novel.  It is, however, primarily a romance and it keeps a lot of the technical details of the design and construction in the background.

The story is interesting but it sometimes seems to move with glacial speed.2 1/2 stars

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of Family and Culture in Crisis

by J. D. Vance, 2016, Harper (Kindle Edition)

This book is very pertinent to what is occurring in the United States today.  Individuals are angry and upset, don’t trust the government, don’t trust the media, and are prone to false news and conspiracy theories.  Vance’s book sheds a lot of light on how the “hillbilly culture” affects how many in the rust belt and Appalachia are affected by this culture.

Vance’s memoir of his life growing up in a dysfunctional hillbilly family with a mother who was untrustworthy, an alcoholic and drug user, and an abuser, illustrates the impacts of this kind of culture.  He was extremely fortunate to have grandparents who provided him with enough stability and belief in him to enable him to escape from his roots.  Unfortunately, the situation he experienced and the subsequent opportunities that opened up are fairly rare.  He is definitely an exception.

My only criticism of the book is that I think Vance suggests that the dysfunction is unique to the hillbilly culture.  I believe that there are similar forces present in many of the other cultures (Black, Hispanic, and even wealthy white families) that are creating similar behaviors.

The book is well-written and easy to follow.  I would recommend this book.3 1/2 stars

The Convivial Codfish

by Charlotte MacLeod, 1984, Doubleday & Company, Inc., Garden City, New York

This book is a short murder mystery that takes place in the Boston area.  It has quite a bit of humor and the characters are interesting (albeit somewhat hard to keep track of).  I enjoyed the book but it got a bit bogged down in the middle as the detective interviews all of his suspects. 3 stars

The Association of Small Bombs, a Novel

by Karen Mahajan, 2016, Penguin Books, New York

This book is about a terrorist bombing in Delhi, India, where two young boys were killed and how it affected the victims, the perpetrator, and their families.

I had a hard time getting into this book as the plot seemed to meander a lot (although it did come together somewhat in the end).  I think I may have lost it with all the Indian place names but I also didn’t connect very well with the characters.  The portrayal of the characters seemed very flat.  It was an interesting subject but I wish the delivery could have been better. 2 1/2 stars

Winter of the World: The Century Trilogy, Book 2

by Ken Follett, Audiobook narrated by John Lee, 2012, Penguin Audio

I have continued on my quest to listen to all three books in this trilogy.  I am again giving this book a three-star rating although I think it’s a bit better than the first book of the trilogy, World Without End.  This book was about World War II and various families who were impacted by the war whereas the prior book was primarily about World War I.  Perhaps the immediacy of the subject made it a bit better than the first.

I often think of Herman Wouk’s Winds of War and War and Remembrance when I read these books as they are written with the same basic formula: the war, the families, and how they survived through the war.  Wouk’s works are definitely a better effort as they dealt with the internment in concentration camps of some of the family members.  I could feel the stress and impending doom much more in his books than Follett’s.  Follett also throws in a few sex scenes to titillate his readers while Wouk’s were a bit more prudish.

While I can’t really rave about these, they aren’t bad listening, and, I as mentioned, they do refresh the history for me. 3 stars

The Black House

by Peter May, 2009, Quercus, New York, London

Occasionally I come across a book I really, really like and this is one of them.  I particularly liked the author’s descriptive writing.  His way of describing the surroundings is almost poetic and creates a compelling backdrop to whatever is going on in the novel.  I also liked his characters as they seemed to be real people.  Sometimes I would get frustrated with Fin, the main character, as he would not behave the way I wanted him to behave, but that’s what makes for an interesting individual.  The plot was well constructed, although the mystery that was at the heart of the story sometimes got a bit lost in the emotions and interactions of the characters.

The book takes place in the Outer Hebrides which are in the northwest of Scotland.  The author clearly has a strong connection and understanding of the people and the land.  I experienced an enjoyable reading of the book but I also took away an appreciation of this part of the world that I didn’t have prior to reading it.  It was well done.

I understand that this is the first book of a trilogy.  I can only hope that the other two books are as good as this one.

4 1/2 stars

Call Me Madame Alice

by K. W. Garlick, 2016, Stillwater River Publications, Chepachet, RI

I was given this book to read by a friend and it looked interesting as some of the story was set in Jamestown and Prudence Islands in Rhode Island.

Alas, the book, did not meet my expectations.  Even though the book was self published, it clamed to have an editor and co-editor at the end.  The book is rife with sentences that were missing verbs, the wrong tense, and poor punctuation.  Also, while the idea behind the book was interesting (linking a conspiracy associated with the loss of the Titanic to the aftermath of the 1938 hurricane in Rhode Island), the book failed in many other aspects.  The dialogue was extremely stilted and every character spoke exactly like all the other characters.  It was impossible to differentiate between the high-ranking naval officer who was head of the family and the housemaid/caregiver who grew up in Haiti.  The story seemed to drag in places as the characters repeated information over and over that was previously disclosed.

I generally don’t like to disparage writing efforts that are self-published as they probably shouldn’t be held to the same standard as books published by publishing houses, but I have read some fairly good books that are self-published and some pretty bad books published normally.  Even though this one is self-published and was lent to me by a friend, it is just too bad to give it a pass.1.5 stars

Saving Sophie

by Ronald H. Balson, 2015, St. Martin’s Griffin, New York

This is a very interesting novel about a girl being abducted by her grandfather and the attempts to get her back from the West Bank in Israel.  The book is a fast read and is interesting.  The author weaves historical facts about Israel and the Palestinians into a suspenseful novel.

The ending is a bit of a letdown, but otherwise it is a decent novel.3 1/2 stars

Honor’s Voice, The Transformation of Abraham Lincoln

by Douglas L. Wilson, 1998, Alfred A. Knopf, New York

I had always eyed this book as it surely targeted a subject that I was interested in: the transformation of Abrahams Lincoln from a backwoods youth to the person who had possibly the greatest command of the English language ever.  While the book did answer some questions for me, unfortunately it bored me to death.

I think the major problem with the book is the author’s approach to the subject.  He took a forensic approach to each of the events in the period from 1831 to 1842 and tried to logically make a case for the most accurate accounting of each. The first chapter is about Lincoln’s fight with Jack Armstrong shortly after he arrived in New Salem.  The author goes through several different accounts of this event and tries to determine which is the most likely.  The chapter went on and on to the point where I had to skip about twenty-five pages because it was so redundant.  Also, it didn’t seem to make a lot of difference which accounting was the most accurate as the point was that a fight occurred where Lincoln was involved and, as a result, he earned some new found respect that he previously didn’t have.  ‘Nuff said!

After skipping much of that chapter, I went on to read the rest of the book.  It followed the same path but I eventually made it through to the end.

At the end of the day, I discovered that Lincoln in his early years was prone to making personal attacks on his opponents via anonymous articles submitted to the local newspapers (Twitter wasn’t invented at that time).  This behavior was fairly despicable, even for those times.  It eventually caused Lincoln to be challenged to a duel.  I also learned that he had a penchant for reading Shakespeare and Byron’s poetry.  I think this might have been a key to his mastery of the English language in his later years.

I think the book could have been a lot more enjoyable to read if the author had dispensed with a lot of the detail and focused more on his conclusions.  This would have made the book a lot shorter, but he also could have expanded the time period he examined beyond 1842 as I don’t believe the entire “transformation” had been completed by that time.  There were a lot more events that influenced Lincoln after 1842 including his term in Congress, his family life, etc., that made him the man who was elected in 1860.  2 stars