• Afterlives by Abdulrazak Gurnah **** (of 4)

    Gurnah won the 2022 Nobel Prize for literature and it is evident why in Afterlives, a vision of life on the ground in East Africa under German occupation. As the 19th century was drawing to a close, the eastern seaboard of the continent was carved up and ingested by Germany, Great Britain, Italy, and France. Before swallowing they chewed up natives in ground wars that rolled across towns, ports, and villages.

    Gurnah follows a family of Indian muslims and a couple of indigenous Tanzanians who we get to know on an individual basis as they go about their daily business. They get jobs, some learn to read and write, they pray in the mosque if they are religious, they have marriages (good and bad), sometimes join the Germans in their war making, and sometimes do their best to escape the dehumanization of German attacks on resistant villagers and their chiefs.

    Gurnah delivers exquisitely close attention to details: the warmth of the Indian Ocean on an evening walk, the fear of isolation when a child must sleep on a dirt floor knowing that in the morning an uncaring guardian will again demand a full day of exhausting chores, and the satisfaction of finally consummating a marriage after a painfully long delay. An era, a location, and a melange of complicated people are all painted in vivid color. A leaf doesn’t fall whose importance Gurnah fails to notice and yet he never includes like a single word more than is needed.

  • A Line in the Sand by Kevin Powers ** (of 4)

    A recently executed body shows up on a beach in Norfolk, Virginia, home to military bases and private military contractors. As the police and a local newspaper reporter investigate, both the murderee and murderer are enveloped in a secret world of caught up in black-ops and shady deals being made between politicians in D.C. and private companies to whom the U.S. government is outsourcing its 2004 nwar in Iraq. The coded language used by police and military personnel feel like they are being recorded without translation and their authenticity is appealing. Likewise, the hunt for the killers is genuinely suspenseful

    Readers tend to love or hate Kevin Powers’ writring style (Check out the entry on Powers in Wikipedia to see what reviewers thought of his first book on the Iraq War.) The New York Times review loved A Line in the Sand:

    First and foremost, “A Line in the Sand” is a stunning novel. Kevin Powers provides what any discerning reader desires the most — complex and flawed characters, precise use of language, succinct description and believable dialogue.

    I put myself in the not-so-impressed with Powers camp. His characters all have names like Tim, Sally, and John and his dialogue carries the same lack of originality, in my opinion. His characters are simple and inconsistent. Sally, the reporter, is a hopeless alcoholic mourning the loss of her brother in the Iraq war. She starts drinking when her morning alarm rings and continues on her way to work in the morning. She is prone to inconsolable crying. Once her editor gives her free reign to investigate the murder case, however, she doesn’t remember to drink a drop of alcohol for the remaining 80 percent of the book. As Dave Eggers said about Powers writing, he never misses an opportunity to insert an adjective. Characters don’t just look up in exasperation, they look up at the sky. Usually they look up at a blue sky in exasperation. I found myself doing the same.

  • Birnham Wood by Eleanor Catton *** (of 4)

    The premise is simple enough. A guerilla environmental group in New Zealand, calling itself Birnham Wood, illegally plants gardens on vacant properties. As you would expect, the group is anti-Capitalist, barely operating on a shoestring budget, shares its produce with low income families, and is mostly run by women: visionary, competent, egalitarian, and occasionally, passively catty. Their ethics are challenged when an American billionaire looking to construct a doomsday bunker for himself in New Zealand offers to bankroll Birnham Wood on property he has just purchased on the edge of a National Park.

    Should Birnham Wood take the money and after four years of insolvency finally enjoy stability and national recognition for their good efforts? Are they just being used as a publicity screen for a screwball capitalist bully? Are the billionaire’s intentions reliable or is greenwashing the sale of New Zealand real estate to foreigners a fair tradeoff? Can a non-profit with no hierarchical structure and some strong personalities hold itself together?

    It’s a little weird that the author tells us many things that characters are thinking that they do not even know about themselves, but page after page, intentions, whether overt or handed to us by the writer turn darker and what begins as enviros versus the rich spins into something much deeper.

  • All the Sinners Bleed *** (of 4)

    Nobody captures underlying racial tension in the contemporary south, wrapped in a crime thriller, as well as S.A. Cosby. His leads–this is Cosby’s fourth in a series of unconnected novels taking place in rural Virginia–are invariably upstanding Black men facing entrenched, and typically barely concealed, white hostility.

    Titus Crown is the first Black sheriff in a coastal Virginia community. His predecessor was a Black-beating, omnipotent, Old School sheriff who barely lost to Titus in the last election. Crown faces underlying bigotry from the town’s whites and progressive Blacks see Crown as having sold out to an untrustworthy police force. In the opening pages an active shooter is in the local high school. There is, in subsequent scenes, a march by Confederate sympathizers to the statue in the middle of town commemorating rebel war heroes, an outspoken pastor of a local Black Church planning a countermarch, a serial killer, and a child porn ring. Titus Crown’s allegiances to family, community, law, and justice are yanking him in impossible contortions.

    All the Sinners Bleed is a page turner, but also tries to incorporate too many current events in one book. Cosby holds it together, but fewer yanks on a single sheriff in such a short period would have still gotten the point across and felt closer to reality.

  • The Last Devil to Die by Richard Osman *** (of 4)

    In this fourth installation of the Thursday Murder Club, Richard Osman’s four 80-year-old residents (plus or minus, but who can keep track at that age when there new aches to fend off and fresh gossip to keep abreast of) of Cooper’s Chase senior living center find themselves engaged in a drug smuggling scheme.

    As the book opens, another senior citizen, still working as the proprietor of a nearby antiques shop, is murdered. And also a newcomer to Cooper’s Chase has succumbed to on-line romance fraud. In the first case it becomes quickly apparent that the murder is instigated by a drug deal gone wrong and in the second it is going to take some persuasion to convince Mervin that continuing to send money to Tatiana in Moldova is not likely to bring the author of carefully crafted love letters, and accompanying generic Internet photos, to England anytime soon.

    True to the best of crime fiction, Osman’s mysteries are compelling, but the real joy is what is learned in the surrounding milieu. In this case, it is Richard Osman’s kind and poignant descriptions of the four octogenarian friends that remind us that entrance to a senior living center is not a death sentence. On the contrary we are given ample opportunity to observe lives well lived even as the participants know their remaining days are limited. Maybe their lives are so rich precisely because they know. A lesson for all of us.

  • The Ink Black Heart by Robert Galbraith

    On the plus side there are very few writers who can match JK Rowling’s (writing under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith) ability to capture personality, dialogue, and character. In this, the sixth in the series of crime novels involving private detectives Robin Ellicott and Cormoran Strike, Rowling takes on the viciousness, malignancy, and unbridled misogyny of internet communities that spiral downward into the Dark Web.

    What begins as a quirky YouTube cartoon grows in popularity among an on-line fandom. Only the fandom becomes so opinionated about the direction, and Directors, that the power of the fans overtakes the show itself. The anonymity of the internet allows people to form relationships they might not in real life, but it also permits abusers to mislead, harass, intimidate, and threaten. All of that secrecy and privacy makes for a compelling mystery when one of the directors is murdered. In a cemetery!

    On the downside, as happened in the Harry Potter series, Rowling’s editors were unable to push back. The number of potential suspects is so large that it is likely the only way to keep them all straight is to be staring at Rowling’s diagrams pasted across her walls. Likewise, the number of pages has grown to an overwhelming 1,462. The book should have been tighter.

  • The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store by James McBride **** (of 4)

    The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store is a one-room general store owned by Moshe, but run, at a loss, by his warm-hearted, open-minded, club-footed (polio), empathetic, and tough-as-nails wife, Chona. The store on Chicken Hill may be run by a Jewish family, but it is frequented by Pottstown, Pennsylvania’s Blacks, who along with other immigrants are all but banned from downtown by the Christian elite. It is the 1920s and 1930s and according to Chona, who writes letters to the Pottstown newspaper, it is the town doctor under robes leading the annual KKK parade.

    You would be mistaken, however, if you went into this book expecting a grim tale of racial and ethnic belligerence. Instead, McBride introduces us to some of the most respectable, joyful, conniving, conscientious, and well-meaning Blacks and Jews you will ever have the pleasure of observing. Throughout–as the the two communities work together to rescue a 12-year-old Black child who has been “taken” to a criminally negligent insane asylum typical of the era — we readers have the unique pleasure of being in the room where vernacular conversations ricochet off the walls. Jews answer questions with more questions and African Americans tell stories that build upon other stories and then lead to new stories as they navigate within the confines of racial America. James McBride is one of the few, perhaps, the only, writer capable of telling such a tale with this much grace, compassion, and drive.

  • Properties of Thirst by Marianne Wiggins *** (of 4)

    An ambitious book that centers the Owen’s Valley in California, the valley’s desertification following rerouting all of the valley’s water to Los Angeles, and the placement of the Japanese internment camp, Manzanar, in the midst of the dusty, isolated desert. A lone holdout rancher, Rocky Rhodes, refuses to cooperate with the water boys from LA. He is joined by his twin sister, Casswell, his wife (who is already dead by the time the book opens), and his two children: Sunny and Stryker. (Get it: Rocky Roads, Sunny Roads?). The Rhodes’s come from old waspy money back east.

    Schiff, a nebish of a Jew, with a big conscience, from Chicago is charged with building a camp — really a ghetto — for 10,000 American citizens forced to abandon their jobs and homes with nothing more than what they are wearing and could carry in their hands. Sunny and Schiff have eyes for one another, Sunny is an indomitable chef in the middle of nowhere, Nature (with a capital N) in the desert and in the nearby Sierras is a character in its own right, and Japanese prisoners of war stagger through the indignities of living behind barbed wire.

    Wiggins is a master story teller and a wizard with words, but may have taken on too many themes to do sufficient justice to all of them in one book.

  • Only to Sleep by Lawrence Osborne **** (of 4)

    In 1939, Raymond Chandler wroteThe Big Sleep featuring, Private Investigator Philip Marlowe. Marlowe was the original world weary, cynical PI: hard drinking, self-mocking, and a womanizer. He wore a fedora and could only have existed on a black and white screen played by Humphrey Bogart. In Only to Sleep, it is now 1988 and Marlowe is called out of retirement to traipse across Mexico for an insurance company that thinks one of its clients has just duped them out of a couple of million dollars.

    Marlowe takes the job because he’s bored and wants one more run at his old job. Only his knees and arthritis are bothering him and he’s old enough that the appeal of femmes fatales is more instinctual than physical. Osborne’s Marlowe is a deep philosopher with insights about human nature, decadal changes in Mexico, loneliness, landscape, and growing old. He is also funny and difficult and Osborne’s joy at turning out this novel is infectious. The audiobook is excellent.

  • The Poison Machine *** (of 4)

    Some authors of historical fiction (see Geraldine Brooks) are so caught up by their research that plot and characters are afterthoughts or cliches applied to hold together what really ought to be nonfiction. Robert J. Lloyd, in contrast, paints 1679 England, and in this caper, France, too, with effortless ease. Homing in on a mysterious murder of the Queen’s dwarf, the author sets Robert Hooke and his assistant Harry Hunt on the investigatory trail. They are a perfect duo, because Hooke was, in real life, one of the first scientists of modern history. He and Hunt use the scientific method and are slowly breaking the shackles of one thousand years of church indoctrination.

    Roiling in the background are deadly conflicts between Anglicans and Papists. Isaac Newton makes a guest appearance as do other scientists of the day while poor Harry, in love with Hooke’s niece, Grace, has to uncover the mystery of the murder while learning to stand on his own two feet. The plot is preposterous and believable at the same time and local color is imparted so seemlessly that the somewhat complex question of how the dwarf met his demise is not that important.