Author Rating: D

The Handmaid’s Tale (listened to audiobook read by Claire Danes, March 2017; not recommended)

This will be an unpopular opinion but this book is terrible. It’s boring. Twenty-five chapters in and I want to slap the main character, Offred. Just eat the fucking toast already.

I do not understand why this novel is recommended so glowingly by so many. Has anyone actually read it since they were 14, in 1985?  I don’t believe in the dull, gray world, and I have been given no reason to care about any of the characters, least of all the main character, Offred, who is as appealing as gray washwater.

It’s hard to find really good speculative fiction. This doesn’t even rise to the level of passable.   Claire Danes might be a good reader. It’s hard to say given how unremittingly dreary and uninspired this particular book is.


Author Rating: A

Elizabeth Arnold Hopkins Poe (Library of Congress)

Elizabeth Arnold Hopkins Poe (Library of Congress)

It’s odd how the work of some writers is made more interesting by knowing something of their personal life and others less so. To me, Poe is one of the former.

An American writer, poet, editor and literary critic, part of the American Romantic Movement, Poe is considered the inventor of the detective-fiction genre. Poe led a very interesting, although short, life.

His father David Poe, a lawyer turned actor, and his mother Elizabeth Arnold Poe, a second-generation actress, both died in 1811, leaving Edgar, then age two, his older brother Henry and younger sister Rosalie orphans in the care of John and Frances Allan of Richmond, Virginia.

Photo of painting of Edgar Allan Poe by Mrs. Norman Burwell, c. 1903.  (Library of Congress)

Photo of painting of Edgar Allan Poe by Mrs. Norman Burwell, c. 1903. (Library of Congress)

Rufus Wilmot Griswold made sure that for at least a couple decades after his death, Poe was regarded as a madman. Matthew Pearl has put together a review of Poe’s obituaries.

A bibliography of Poe’s work can be found here.

The Poe Museum in Richmond, Virginia has a wealth of material on the man, his life and his work.

Author Rating: A+

A Key To The Suite (read 5/15/09) recommended

John D. MacDonald, who died in 1986, wrote dozens of crime and suspense novels and short stories. His best known characterTravis McGee appeared in 21 of them. There is crime in this one but this is not a crime story, it’s a psychological tale of a sales convention, a sexual liaison and blackmail. Published in 1962, there is a lot here that is very dated but it’s an interesting look at corporate culture. The men described in this book are the fathers and grandfathers of today’s business executives.

Pale Gray For Guilt (read 5/24/09) recommended

Published in 1968, this is the ninth in MacDonald’s Travis McGee series and, like the others, set in Florida. McGee’s old friend “Tush” Bannon is driven to bankruptcy and murdered so that his ten acres of land on the Shawana River can be had cheap by developers. Simply, it is a story of revenge and retribution. McGee sets up several cons to extract substantial sums of money from the perpetrators both to punish them and to provide for the widow and her children.

In addition to being a gripping story, it’s interesting for its social commentary from a 1960s perspective. Some of the writing is a little confused but that is really a very minor fault.

The Dreadful Lemon Sky (read 10/13/09) recommended

Published in 1974, this Travis McGee novel begins when a young woman who he hadn’t seen in several years turns up wanting him to hold a large amount of cash for her. Several days later McGee learns she has been hit and killed by an automobile, so he and his friend Meyer go to Bayside, Florida to find out why she’s dead and where the money came from.

It turns out that Carrie had been involved in marijuana trafficking, and before the book is done three more people are dead.

What I enjoy most about MacDonald is his exploration of social issues, in this case the sale and use of marijuana.

Barrier Island (read 1/31/10) recommended

John D. MacDonald is one of those rare writers who got better and better as the years went by. Barrier Island, published the year he died, in 1986, is proof of that.

Wade Rowley is a partner in a real estate company in a booming town on the Mississippi coast who discovers his partner has gotten them involved in a shady deal involving a barrier island. It is, as the jacket blurb says, “a novel about decency and greed, good and evil, about the barriers we build inside ourselves to govern our behavior and how those barriers are eroded.”

Author Rating: A

The Society of Others (read 5/07) Recommended

The back cover description calls this a “coming of age” story but I think that does the book a disservice. This review over at Amazon explains:

Thus begins an existential journey in which the young man is challenged to use his wits for survival, in a dismal landscape during a punishing winter. This is a country in a constant state of emergency because of “terrorism”, where people mind their own business, afraid to draw the attentions of the secret police. Cast into situations that demand a great deal of courage, the young man discovers a new appreciation for his former lifestyle and the people he left behind, desperate to escape this nightmarish paranoia, fear and incipient violence. Dropped like Alice down the rabbit hole, the young man is besieged with random brutality and ignorance, as well as the unexpected generosity of those willing to offer shelter and companionship.


Much remains unexplained, though one could make certain assumptions. The dramatic ending is confusing, leaving me unsure if this is a Jacob’s ladder conundrum or a psychological crisis. I feel somewhat ambiguous about the novel, unsure if it is significant or simply entertains aspirations without quite reaching the intended metaphysical goal. It may be a quandary that only the reader can determine.

Author Rating: A

We all have to go some time, but the world is a sadder place without Russell Hoban.  I very much disagree with Laura Miller’s assertion that he was  “a cult writer.”   He was simply brilliant.

Riddley Walker (Read 1980s) Recommended

The apocalypse happened so long ago, the time before is no more than myth. Religious orders maintain remnants of the technological past. Riddley Walker searches for understanding. Blisteringly good stuff.

Turtle Diary (read 3/07) Recommended

Somewhat melancholy story about two people whose lives come together in the common goal of returning a sea turtle to the sea.

Her Name was Lola (read 6/07) Recommended

How to describe this? It’s about living and love, forgetting and remembering. A really wonderful novel that you won’t want to miss.

Frances the Badger series for children ( read as a child in the ’60s):

  • Bedtime for Frances
  • A Baby Sister for Frances
  • A Bargain for Frances
  • Best Friends for Frances
  • A Birthday for Frances
  • Bread and Jam for Frances

I never connected the author of the Frances stories with the adult novels until now. That new knowledge feels like a gift.

Author Rating: A

Glass Soup (read 7/31/07) Highly recommended

White Apples (read 8/12/07) Highly recommended

Sleeping In Flame (read 1980s) Highly recommended

Outside The Dog Museum
(read 1980s) Highly recommended

I would say this is Carroll’s most accessible.

After Silence (read 1980s) Highly recommended

Black Cocktail (read 1980s) Recommended

I would say this is Carroll’s least accessible.

Kissing The Beehive (read 8/20/07) Recommended

The Marriage of Sticks (read 2/11/08) Recommended

It is difficult to adequately describe Carroll’s novels. They are all explorations of life, what it means to be human, what it means to love another person and the difficulty in distinguishing between what is actual and what exists only in our minds.

Author Rating: A

Staring At The Sun (read 1990s) Highly recommended

A brilliant novel about love, truth and mortality, set in post-war England.

Metroland (read 1990s) Recommended

Barnes’ first published novel is a short, semi-autobiographical story of Christopher, a young man from the London suburbs who travels to Paris as a student, finally returning to London. It deals with themes of idealism and sexual fidelity.

Before She Met Me (read 1990s) Highly recommended

A story of revenge by a jealous historian who becomes obsessed by his second wife’s past. “Wow” pretty much covers it.

Flaubert’s Parrot (read 1990s) Recommended

A fragmentary biographical narrative of an elderly doctor, Geoffrey Braithwaite, who focuses obsessively on the life of Gustave Flaubert.

A History Of The World In 10-1/2 Chapters (read 1990s) Recommended

A non-linear novel which questions the perceived notions of human history and knowledge itself.

Talking It Over (not yet read)

A contemporary love triangle, in which the three characters take turns to talk to the reader, reflecting over common events.

Love, Etc. (not yet read)

Revisits the characters in Talking It Over ten years later.

The Porcupine (not yet read)

A novel about the trial of a fictional former Communist dictator.

England, England (not yet read)

A satire on Britishness and the culture of tourism

Cross Channel (not yet read)

A collection of 10 short stories charting Britain’s relationship with France.

The Lemon Table (not yet read)

Eleven short stories about life and death.