A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood

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"Because a minority is only thought of as a minority when it constitutes some kind of threat to the majority, real or imaginary."

George is an outsider in just about every way possible. He is an English transplant living in California during the early 1960's. He is a 50 something-year-old intellectual surrounded by the youthful students of the college he teaches at. Perhaps most egregious, George is gay. His otherness used to not bother him much, especially because his partner Jim loved him unconditionally for who he was. But then Jim was killed in an accident.

Now, there are two sides to George. One side is the outer George, the one who dresses impeccably each day, teaches his students, and makes polite small talk with the neighbors. The other is the internal George, the one who longs for an escape from the monotony of day to day life and contemplates the loaded pistol that's never too far from reach. It is this internal/external dichotomy that fuels the pages of Isherwood's novel.

A Single Man is a tremendous novel. It is the kind of work that should be required reading, but it usually gets passed over for more standard works. Within less than 200 pages, Isherwood writes about love, loss, acceptance, and grief in a way that is as profound as it is engrossing. In George, Isherwood captures the essence of any person labeled 'other' from the crowd, and creates a timeless message of accepting the uniqueness of each individual and living each day as if it is your last. I was completely blown away by this novel.

For more information, visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads.

(2017, 32)

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead


"If you want to see what this nation is all about, I always say, you have to ride the rails. Look outside as you speed through, and you'll find the true face of America."

Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad has taken the publishing world by storm. It began as a surprise selection for Oprah's book club nearly one month before it was slated to be published. In a logistical feat, the novel was on the shelves shortly thereafter and began its reign as a commercial and critical juggernaut. The book was voted in as a historical themed selection for The Next Best Book Club's monthly discussion on Goodreads, a discussion that I'm leading all month long. This provided me the perfect excuse to dive into Whitehead's novel and see what all the hype is about.

The novel opens in the Antebellum South on the Randall Plantation, a farm known more for its appalling treatment of its slaves than the harvest they produce. Cora is no stranger to those horrors. She's grown up as one of the Randall's servants and seen how the mistreatment of her peers gives the Randall brothers a sick pleasure. This goes beyond simple punishment. It is not uncommon for slaves to be summoned for a beating as a form of entertainment for the brothers and their guests. Whitehead writes of this sadistic torture with detailed descriptions that make no attempts to shield readers from the unabashed vulgarity of this history.

Miraculously, Cora clings to the hope that one day she will escape the bonds of the Randall Plantation. It seems like an impossible dream, especially when she's seen the brutal executions of those who tried to escape in the past, but Cora has a secret weapon. Years ago, Cora's mother escaped the plantation and was never heard from again. Even the famed slave catcher Ridgeway was unable to find her. Cora is bitter that her mother left her to fend for herself, but she clings to the thought that if her mom could escape, she can too.

Cora's dreams come to fruition when another slave, Caesar, tells her of his plan to leave. He has made contact with a man who can grant the pair access to the infamous underground railroad. In Whitehead's world, this is not merely a network of brave abolitionists, but an actual railroad built in tunnels across the US. Leaving the plantation marks the beginning of a journey that is even more perilous than the unenviable life of servitude. With each stop on the railroad, Cora faces new obstacles that cause her to question the price of her own freedom. On a deeper level, Whitehead seems bring into question what true freedom even is.

The Underground Railroad is novel of contradictions. It is rich in its bleakness. It is a novel that is difficult to read, but impossible to put down. Whitehead constructs his story in a version of history that serves as a metaphor for the treatment of African Americans. His focus on a single character allows him to merge the expansive history of injustice into a story that is more easily absorbed. As such, the action of Cora's escape works on two levels. One, as the story of a thrilling cat and mouse chase between slave and slave catcher, and two, as a larger portrait of systemic racism. The Underground Railroad is a masterful novel that is sure to spark passionate discussion and debate for years to come. I rarely provide a universal recommendation of a novel to readers of different tastes, but I will not hesitate to do so with this one. Read this book!

For more information, visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads.

(2017, 31)

Watch Me Disappear by Janelle Brown


"God, this must have been a difficult year for you."

It is hard to believe that it has been a year. One year of learning how to be a single parent to his daughter Olive. One year of quitting his job and writing a memoir. One year since he last saw his wife and his world changed forever. Even after a year to cope, Jonathan Flanagan still has more questions than answers. His wife Billie Flanagan went missing after embarking on a solo hike through the Desolation Wilderness. She vanished, never to be seen or heard from again. Now Jonathan is left to pick up the pieces.

"How many times can he write and rewrite the story of his life with Billie before he'll know what was really true?"

With no body and only minimal clues to definitively prove what happened to his wife, Jonathan is left in an emotional and financial limbo. Someone covertly recorded his eulogy at Billie's memorial service. His speech was uploaded to the Internet and quickly went viral. Jonathan was able to spin this moment of fame into a book deal that allowed him to quit his demanding job and spend more time with his daughter. As the money from his publishing deal dwindles away, Jonathan begins to question how well he knew his wife. How can he write a book about their life together if the life he knew was a lie?

"All memoirs are lies, even those that tell the truth."

Olive is facing a crisis of her own. Her close relationship with her mom was cut short by Billie's disappearance, and Jonathan's best efforts to fill that void are not working. A year later, Olive finds it hard to continue going to school and fit in with her friends. As she is walking to class, the world around her disappears and is replaced with the image of her mother, alive and well, beckoning her to look closer and trust in herself. At first, Olive attributes this vision to being a side effect of the anniversary of her mother missing. But Billie continues to visit Olive in these strange visions, and Olive gets the idea that Billie is trying to tell her something. For whatever reason, Billie wants Olive to look for her. Could her mom still be alive?

"You believe what you think you believe, until suddenly, you realize that you don't anymore."

Watch Me Disappear is a brilliant novel of family and suspense. Author Janelle Brown has written a poignant character study veiled by an engrossing mystery. At its heart, the novel is about a father and daughter dealing with the repercussions of losing a piece of their family. I was reminded of Maria Semple's Where'd You Go, Bernadette, in that the book focuses on a father and daughter searching for the truth behind a mother's disappearance. That being said, Brown's novel goes much deeper in creating a mature and nuanced depiction of the delicate intricacies of the character's relationship. While the mystery of Billie's vanishing is the impetus for the character development, it is the way Johnathan and Olive evolve throughout the story that drives the narrative. Watch Me Disappear is a thoughtful and emotionally moving novel that works as a solid mystery and even better family drama.

For more information, visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads.

(2017, 30)

Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie


Anyone who has read my reviews will know that I love a good mystery. I've always been addicted to the genre. I remember reading Encyclopedia Brown as a kid and have continued to devour mysteries ever since. All things considered, I can't believe it has taken me this long to read an Agatha Christie novel. As an introduction to the author, I decided to start with her most famous book, Murder on the Orient Express.

This is a classic, locked-room mystery. A train passenger has been killed, the train is snowed in, and one of the surviving passengers has to be the culprit. Fortunately, inspector Hercule Poirot is riding the train. He jumps into action and begins a methodical investigation of the mysterious murder. Poirot creates a list of questions to be answered. He believes that if the answers are revealed, he will be able to discover the identity of the killer.

In a brisk couple hundred of pages, Agatha Christie presents a meticulously plotted mystery that will keep even veteran readers of the genre guessing. I was reminded of the novels by P.D. James as I read this one. Like James's works, this story relies on characters to drive the momentum of the plot. With the static setting of the stalled train, Christie uses her charismatic hero and his incremental revelations to bring depth to her novel. Over eighty years after being published, Murder on the Orient Express is still a thrilling read with a surprise ending that makes it one of the best that's ever been written.

For more information, visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads.

(2017, 29)

American Assassin by Vince Flynn


When I was in high school, I read a trade paperback copy of Transfer of Power by Vince Flynn. I bought the copy from a garage sale for a quarter, and for the amount of entertainment it provided the book was quite a steal. Years later, I still buy way too many copies of used books, but I haven't kept up with Flynn's series about CIA agent Mitch Rapp. When I stumbled upon a copy of American Assassin, the chronological beginning to the character, I jumped at the chance to read another installment in the series that entertained me years ago.

The novel opens at a time before Mitch Rapp is the infamous agent that Flynn originally wrote about. Rapp has just been summoned by Irene Kennedy, an up and coming protege of the director of the CIA, to join a select group of potential recruits to a top secret clandestine force. The group functions to do the dirty work of the agency without any official directive or recognition from the government. Out of a deep pool of applicants, these are supposed to be the best of the best.

Rapp seems to be an unusual choice, especially to the man tasked with training and selecting the final members of the force. Stan Hurley dislikes Rapp from the start. He was a talented athlete and may have the physical capacity to do the job, but Mitch Rapp is an emotional mess. Rapp lost his father at a young age and his girlfriend lost her life in a terrorist attack. This has left Rapp with one thing on his mind: revenge. With the threat of future terrorist activity growing stronger each day, Rapp must face Hurley's opposition, the mounting pressure from Irene Kennedy, and most difficulty his inner demons to become one of the best agents in the history of the CIA.

American Assassin contains much of what I remembered liking about the first novel. Mitch Rapp is the kind of macho, all-American hero that is really easy to root for. Flynn writes with a breakneck pace that keeps the pages turning and the thrills coming. The supporting cast is equally well-rounded with Stan Hurley stealing nearly every scene he's in. As a prequel to the expansive series that Rapp is featured in, this book gives an adequate introduction to the character. Still, I found the development of Rapp from grieving youth to hardened special agent to be very rushed and under developed. One moment he is facing the doubts about taking on this job, the next he is ruthlessly executing terrorists. There isn't much in between. This book has certainly reinvigorated my enthusiasm for Flynn's books, but it doesn't delve much past the surface level emotions of its main character.

For more information, visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads.

(2017, 28)

The Force by Don Winslow


"Why does everyone else get rich? The wiseguys, the dope dealers, the politicians? Why not us for a change? When is it our turn?"

My familiarity with author Don Winslow began with his novel, The Savages. That novel and its prequel, The Kings of Cool, featured a fast-paced, bare-knuckle prose that made for a quick and thrilling read. The way Winslow had me rooting for a group of drug dealers was remarkable, and I consider those books to be some of the best thrillers that I've ever read.

His 2015 novel, The Cartel, garnered critical and commercial acclaim as a sprawling epic about the drug war. It was quickly optioned for a film adaptation by Ridley Scott, and cemented Winslow's place as one of the top thriller authors writing today. When an advanced copy of Winslow's latest novel, The Force, made its way to my desk, I eagerly dived into the novel with high expectations.

Denny Malone is a king of sorts. As the leader of the exclusive NYPD task force, "Da Force", Denny has earned the reputation as being one of the best officers in the city. His men put their lives on the line each night, protecting their home from drugs, gangs, and violence. Denny's personal life has taken a backseat to his work, leaving him separated from his wife, away from his children, and frequenting the home of his drug-addicted mistress. Denny sees this as a necessary evil, all part of the Job.

Ironically, Denny's quest for justice has seen him precariously balance on the edge of cop and criminal. Simply put, Denny is a dirty cop. If putting a bad guy away involves stretching the truth at a trial, planting evidence, or even killing him instead of arresting him, that's fine by Denny. Within the expansive corruption of the justice system, Denny dutifully plays his part in keeping the wheels turning.

Denny takes things a step further when his team busts a notorious drug leader. They murder the criminal on the spot and keep a bit of his drugs for themselves. Why shouldn't the team financially benefit from this massive bust. They reason that if they don't profit from this situation, someone else will. But years of deceit and corruption finally catch up to Denny when the Feds begin to pressure him for info. Denny is caught between saving his own skin and protecting his team. "A man takes care of his family, end of story."

The Force is the best thriller that I've read this year. Winslow writes a startling portrait of a criminal justice system that mirrors the kind of crime operations it is supposed to destroy. At nearly 500 pages, The Force is not the quick read that Winslow gave in his earlier works. Instead, it is a detailed study of a man's transformation from good to bad that evolves slowly while constantly engaging. I was reminded of the epic scope of some of the great gangster films like The Godfather and Goodfellas. I marveled and the way Winslow explores the idea of justice and what it truly is. Cop thrillers aren't hard to come by, but The Force by Don Winslow is sure to be the best one that you'll read this year.

For more information, visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads.

(2017, 27)

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