The North Water by Ian McGuire – Book


If you choose to read The North Water by Ian McGuire you will be signing on for the last whaling voyage of the Volunteer to Greenland with Captain Brownlee and his crew. You will be traveling with a murderer and you will be a pawn in a plot to make the rich ship owner, named Baxter, richer. The world has discovered fossil fuels, oil and gas, and the market for whale oil has all but dried up. Baxter doesn’t want to lose any money in this energy transition and he has a plan.

I guarantee that Ian McGuire will show you the truest depths to which men can sink and that you will feel only barely better about his main character, Sumner, who has been signed on by Baxter as the ship’s doctor. (Perhaps there are good reasons these men are almost never referred to by their first names.) Sumner has fallen far and he is addicted to opium from his time as a medic in India. A ship’s doctor can order in a big supply of laudanum and stay out of the limelight and find himself with very light duties.

You may not make it through the first chapter, which is harsh and brutal, and even these two words are understatements. If you do there is a sorry tale to tell with implications for another transitional moment that our culture is going through right now with our need to shift away from fossil fuels. A lot of people think they stand to lose a lot of money and seem to be ready to do whatever they must to turn back the clock to keep their fortunes growing. Is what Baxter is doing any worse than what these 21st century billionaires seem prepared to do? Judge for yourself.

Of course Baxter’s plans for self-preservation do not call for him to actually get involved in any of the seamy details. Brownlee is in on the plan but no one in his crew realizes what he is up to. Why does he take the Volunteer north when all the other ships begin to head south? How many survive this ill-fated trip? How does Sumner end up reluctantly solving a murder mystery and exposing a man with no soul? With murders big and small all over the place is one villain any worse than the next? This story is in no way uplifting, but there are reasons to read it if you have the stomach for it. The North Water by Ian McGuire will set you to thinking. It reminds me of books by Joseph Conrad, and Cormac McCarthy, and Herman Melville because it is both brutal and meaty.

The Whistler by John Grisham – Book

John Grisham writes about the corruption that often seems rampant in our culture, and that seems to arise from the dark side of humans, tempting people to break laws and then to defend their behavior physically by intimidation and even murder, if necessary. In this book The Whistler we begin with an unidentified whistle blower. Whistle blowers have been learning to remain anonymous because the information they share is not information someone (or some group) wants shared. In this case the people who would like to silence the whistle blower are criminals so we see the need for secrecy, but how the two parties (info providers and info recipients) react is often less clear cut.

There is a go-between in this case, a guy who has no known address (lives on a boat) and has a fake name and basically lives off the grid. He relays the information from the whistle blower to Lacy and Hugo who work for Board of Judicial Conduct for the State of Florida in St. Augustine. Lacy and Hugo are tasked with investigating complaints about judges. They are not detectives or law enforcers and are not used to dealing with dangerous criminals or even equipped to do so. But this time the judge in question is entwined in a web of some complexity. There is a criminal gang involved, a Native America tribe, a ton of expensive and profitable development, and a casino on Indian land that is a gold mine once all that nearby development is in place.

But everyone is holding his/her cards close to the vest. The whistler wants to be protected before offering data that would prove that a corrupt judge is at the center of this web. The off-the-grid go-between has had dealings with this gang before, and although the gang is mainly interested in building things, raking off profits, accepting protection fees and off-shoring lots of laundered cash, the gang does not mind knocking someone off if it becomes necessary. In fact at least one person we have come to like does get killed and Lacy almost dies. As usual John Grisham puts himself and us at the intersection of human greed and human corruption.

Exactly how corrupt is the Honorable Claudia McDover? Is she worth taking down? Lacy is definitely in way over her head and even before she has any real proof to go on there is a target on her and her partner. This is one hot case for a pair used to going after small time judicial misconduct.

John Grisham, while he does not suck us in quite the way he did in his early books, still gives us a thriller that manages to cover both whistle-blowing and the human love affair with money however it is obtained. It is perfect for a weekend when TV is a wasteland, as it is most weekends, and if you like Grisham’s book you should enjoy The Whistler.

Today Will Be Different by Maria Semple – Book

Today will be different. Today I will be present. Today, anyone I speak to, I will look them in the eye and listen deeply. Today I’ll play a board game with Timby. I’ll initiate sex with Joe. Today I will take pride in my appearance. I’ll shower, get dressed in proper clothes, and change into yoga clothes only for yoga, which today I will actually attend. Today I won’t swear. I won’t talk about money. Today there will be an ease about me. My face will be relaxed, its resting place a smile. Today I will radiate calm. Kindness and self-control will abound. Today I will buy local. Today I will be my best self, the person I’m capable of being. Today will be different.”

This is the mantra that Eleanor chants (and since this book is written in the first person it is quite a while before we learn Eleanor’s name – first we know she is Mom to Timby, and she is Joe’s wife, she writes graphic novels, at least she is supposed to be writing one; her husband is a “hand” surgeon who is in much demand in sports circles – we learn all this before we know her name). No matter, the pledge she makes on the very first page tells us plenty about how Eleanor’s life has been going and it seems a bit haphazard, self-absorbed, and borderline clinically depressed. Once she catalogs her faults and commits to change you would think she would catch a break while she tries out her new lifestyle. But right from the very beginning this is a day that cannot be tamed and Eleanor’s creator, Maria Semple, treats us to a manic day that has us (and Eleanor) doubting whether she has already jinxed her life beyond repair. Here is a writer who puts us right inside her character’s head and has us experience this absolutely mind-bending day at the same breakneck speed that it assaults and is assaulted by Eleanor. I have never made a pledge quite this detailed but I have set out to live a day on my own terms and I have found that our best laid plans like to turn and bite us in the butt, just for fun. This book is so good that we fly through it as if the family dog Yo-Yo was pulling us at the end of his leash and when it’s over we’re hardly sure what will happen next – although clearly change is indicated by the events of this whirlwind day. Where does Eleanor’s sister Ivy fit in to the picture? Why doesn’t Timby know that he has an aunt? All is revealed. It’s complicated.

The story ends with Eleanor repeating the same pledge she made the previous day. Although we are unsure, it seems as if she might make some progress after the revelations of the day before. Maria Semple’s current title is Today Will Be Different. She is also the author of the memorable Where’d You Go, Bernadette. She is a true original, and her books are wonderful.

Faithful by Alice Hoffman – Book

I’m still reading Alice Hoffman’s books, even after all these years and it is not a difficult task to be a loyal fan because her writing is always pretty flawless. Of course not every book has been a favorite; there are some tales I have liked better than others, and there are still books that really hit the literary spot for me. Faithful is almost in that sweet spot. It a very good book, just not one I would put on her top shelf.  It has a beautiful blue cover and it contains lots of blue imagery, but it seems to lead to nothing more than a very blue mood, or perhaps the ink tattoo artists use.

We begin with two high school beauties, one slightly prettier than the other, with all the confidence and arrogance their looks endow them with. These two are a powerful presence in their school. Almost everyone is either in love with them or envies them. Then life happens. One beauty ends up in a coma in her childhood bedroom with the rose wallpaper. That’s Helene Boyd. The other Shelby Richmond, stops her life to do penance for still being alive. She shaves her head, once adorned with long stylish hair. She wears black clothing. She cuts herself. She slits her wrists. She ends up in a Psych ward where she is raped routinely by an orderly until her mother finds out and takes her home. Helene, it is rumored, can make miracles happen. Shelby can barely survive from day to day.

Someone is looking over Shelby though. Postcards arrive for her in the mail with interesting drawings and messages perhaps from an angel or a savior, or maybe somehow from Helene. They bear cryptic messages such as, “Say something”, “Do something”, “Be someone”.  Shelby keeps them in a box with a blue velvet lining. Who will save her? Will anyone save her? That I cannot tell.

This is not rocket science. It is not the great American novel. It doesn’t employ deep symbolism or leave you in a literary trance. Still it portrays the depths of grief a human soul can plumb and it shows that the way out is a function of time and positive social interactions until one day hope becomes stronger than grief and the two strike a bargain that allows life to offer some sweetness once again. Faithful is a story of our times and one that young adults would find very relevant indeed.

January 2017 Book List


I started a book list for December and then gave it up. December is just not a normal month in publishing. Readers, writers, publishers, editors and reviewers tend to look back over the year and give us their best-books-lists, or they sometimes have their experts pick the book/s they read or reread in the past year that they thought was/were best for any number of different reasons. I like “best of” lists, especially when folks explain why these were the best choices, in this case, the best books. So in January my list will include mostly books published in December and November. Amazon gives us titles that are out now and ready to buy. The Indies give us, as usual, books purchased most often in December in their shops. Publisher’s Weekly goes European on us for the most part, and the New York Times was more impressed with nonfiction than fiction this time. For what it’s worth, here is my January 2017 book list, prepared for me and by me, but shared with you just in case you are interested.


Tools of Titans: The Tactics, Routines, and Habits of Billionaires, Icons, and World Class Performers by Tim Ferriss (NF)

Dangerous by Milo Yiannopoulos (political humor) (NF)

The Undoing Project by Michael Lewis (NF)

The Lost City of the Monkey God: A True Story by Doug Preston (NF)

History of Wolves: A Novel by Emily Fridlund

The Bear and the Nightingale: A Novel by Katherine Arden

The Dry: A Novel by Jane Harper

Lillian Boxfish takes a Walk: A Novel by Kathleen Rooney

This is How it Always is: A Novel by Laurie Frankel

Lucky Boy by Shanthi Sekaran

Testosterone Rex: Myths of Sex, Science, and Society by Cordelia Fine

Human Acts: A Novel by Han King

Idaho: A Novel by Emily Rushkovitch

Indelible by Adelia Saunders

Huck Out West: A Novel by Robert Coover

The Midnight Cool by Lydia Peelie

Mystery, Thrillers, and Suspense

Idaho by Emily Ruskovitch

Her Every Fear: A Novel by Peter Swanson

The Girl Before: A Novel by J. P. Delaney

The Sleepwalker: A Novel by Chris Bonjalian

The Dry: A Novel by Jane Harper

Human Acts: A Novel by Han King

The Girl in Green by Derek B. Miller

Fever Dream: A Novel by Samantha Schwelsin and Megan McDowell

The Unsettlers: In Search of the Good Life in Today’s America by Mark Sundeen (NF)

Independent Booksellers

The Association of Small Bombs by Karan Mahajan

The Muralist by B A Shapiro

The Wrong Side of Goodbye by Michael Connelly

Nutshell by Ian McEwan

The Seventh Plague by James Rollins

Turbo Twenty-Three by Janet Evanovitch

The Chemist by Stephanie Meyer

Publishers Weekly

Merrow by Ananda Braxton Smith

The Thieves of Threadneedle Street: The Incredible True Story of the American Forgers who nearly Broke the Bank of England by Nicholas Booth

Under the Midnight Sun by Kiego Higashino (whodunit)

An Extraordinary Time: The End of the Postwar Boom and the Return of the Ordinary Economy by Marc Levinson (NF)

The Man Who Wanted to Know Everything by D A Mishane (police procedural)

These are the Names by Tommy Wieringa (trans. from the Dutch by Sam Garett)

The Gentleman form Japan: An Inspector O Novel by James Church Minotaur

The One Hundred Nights of Hero by Isabel Greenberg (graphic novel)

A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women: Essays on Art, Sex, and the Mind by Siri Hustvelt (NF)

The Garden of Consolation by Parisa Reza (trans.from French by Adriana Hunter) (Iran)

Kill the Next One: A Novel by Federico Axat (trans. from the Spanish by David Frye)

The Return of Münchausen by Segizmund Zzhizhanovshy (trans. from the Russian by Joanne Turnbull)

The Hollow Man: A Novel by Rob McCarthy

Best Books Read by PW staff in 2016

The Gentleman by Forrest Leo

Geek Love by Katherine Dunn

The ABC’s of Socialism edited by Bhaskar Sunkara, illustrated by Phil Wrigglesworth (NF)

We Want Everything by Anne Baletrini, trans by Matt Holden

The Obelisk Gate by N K Jemisin, (Volume 2) (Volume 1 published earlier, The Fifth Season)

Sweet Days of Discipline by Fleur Jaeggy (trans. by Tim Parks)

Girl in Disguise by Greer Macallister (not out until March)(read in galleys)

A Beam of Light by Andrea Camilleri (trans. by Stephen Sartarelli)

Bluets by Maggie Nelson

The North Water by Ian McGuire

NYT Book Review

How to Survive a Plague by David Franco (NF)

Memoirs of a Polar Bear by Yoko Tawada

Thus Bad Begins by Javier Márias

Judas by Amos Oz

Nonstop Metropolis, A New York City Atlas edited by Rebecca Solnit and Joshua Jelly-Schapiro (a most unusual atlas)

The Revolutionaries Try Again by Mauro Javier Cardenas

Colonel Lágrimas by Carlos Fonesca (trans. by Megan McDowell)

Blood of the Dawn by Claudia Salazar Jiménez (trans. by Elizabeth Bryer)

Divorce is in the Air by Gonzalo Torné (trans. by Megan McDowell)

The Private Life of Mrs. Sharma by Ratika Kapur

A Want of Kindness by Joanne Limburg (Queen Anne)

The Country of the Blind by Edward Hoagland


Kill the Next One by Federico Axat

Out of Bounds by Val McDermid

Stone Coffin by Kjell Eriksson

Plaid and Plagiarism by Molly MacRae

Melt by Helen Hardt

The Moravian Night by Peter Handke