Based on the guys in my life, I know they generally like books about sports and war. So, I have started my Books for Guys list with those categories. However, I realize I probably shouldn’t base my list solely on my husband and brothers, so I’ve also included business, fiction, and other non-fiction selections.
Latest Addition (July 7, 2016)
Never Leave Your Dead by Diane Cameron
Nonfiction – War (Released June 7, 2016)
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Plot Summary: The true story of Donald Watkins, a WWII veteran (and the author’s stepfather) who murdered his first wife and mother-in-law long after returning from the China theatre.
My Thoughts: I have to be honest…this book was a total surprise for me. The story sounded interesting, but I had no idea truly how interesting it would turn out to be. I could not stop reading (despite the tiny print of my PDF-formatted ARC) and I ended up taking so much away from these compact 176 pages! Though the writing and story-telling is a bit choppy, the story of Donald Watkins blew my mind. Continue Reading…
Season on the Brink
by John Feinstein, Nonfiction – Sports
Plot Summary: With virtually unlimited access to Bob Knight and the Indiana Hoosiers basketball team, Feinstein chronicled the 1985-86 season, his love/hate relationship with Knight, and the trials of working through a “re-building” year with an insane coach.
My Thoughts: Though A Season on the Brink came out about 25 years ago, reading it now does not feel dated at all. Feinstein obviously had great material to work with in the always dramatic Bob Knight – and it comes through in the book. He also picked a great year to cover – the year following Knight’s infamous chair throwing incident and one where Indiana had some tough obstacles to overcome. This backdrop provided the catalyst for exceptional (from a story telling perspective) Bob Knight antics.
Cane Mutiny: How the Miami Hurricanes Overturned the Football Establishment
by Bruce Feldman, Nonfiction – Sports
Plot Summary: A behind the scenes look at the University of Miami football program – how the Hurricanes went from zero to “The U” in such a short time.
My Thoughts: If you saw and liked the recent ESPN 30 for 30 documentary The U, you will love Cane Mutiny (it’s basically the book version). There is tons of juice on famous graduates and the ridiculous antics that contributed to Miami’s bad boy reputation in college football.
Concussion by Jeanne Marie Laskas
Nonfiction – Medical Mystery/Sports (Released November 24, 2015)
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Summary: The story of Dr. Bennet Omalu, a native of Nigeria, who immigrated to the U.S. and used his neuropathological research into brain injuries to football players (i.e. CTE) to take on the National Football League (NFL).
My Thoughts: Concussion is a so much more than a “football book”; it’s a medical mystery, a David & Goliath story, an immigrant’s story, and a story of a big-business cover-up…and, it’s my favorite nonfiction of 2015! Continue Reading…
by Sandra Neil Wallace, Fiction (Released October, 2013)
Plot Summary: Based on a true story, quarterback Red O’Sullivan and his underdog Hatley High School football team attempt to bring hope to their failing mining town by winning the 1950 Arizona state championships.
My Thoughts: My first thought when I started reading Muckers was that the team and the setting were a bit like the East Dillon Lions in “Friday Night Lights” (the TV show version), which made my day, as I think “FNL” was the best show that’s ever been on TV in my lifetime. Though Muckers is technically fiction, it’s based on the true story of the “Muckers” football team in Jerome, Arizona, a once prosperous copper mining town that essentially became a ghost town when the mine closed. Many of the characters are based on real people and many details in the story are true. Muckers is a heartwarming story of David vs. Goliath and the football team is the one bright spot in an otherwise depressing existence for the residents of Hatley. But, the story is about much more than football. It deals with class, race, poverty, Communism, and the effects of war on the home front (WWII and the Korean War, in this case). For what is being called a Young Adult book, these are extremely hefty topics. But, they give the sports angle depth and make Muckers appealing to adults and “young adults” alike. The characters, particularly Red and Cruz (Red’s best friend and star receiver) are typical boys who rib each other constantly, talk about girls, etc, but are trying to overcome massive odds both in life and on the field. They show heart, determination, loyalty, leadership, and, yes, attitude. Most importantly, they will do anything to win – even push Hatley High’s school bus around for tackling drills since the school didn’t have dummies (a true detail pulled from the real “Muckers” team). Muckers is an inspiring story of the underdog, but also a unique look at a one industry town in the 1950′s.
Striking Gridiron by Greg Nichols
Nonfiction – Sports (Released September, 2014)
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Plot Summary: The story of a Pennsylvania steel town’s (Braddock) high school football team’s amazing 1959 season during the longest labor strike in U.S. history.
My Thoughts: My husband and I are big football fans and harbor soft spots for goose bump-inducing high school football stories. So, Striking Gridiron was right up my alley. The big question was if Nichols would be able to give me goose bumps in a situation where I already knew the ending…but, he succeeded! Continue Reading…
The Big One: An Island, an Obsession, and the Furious Pursuit of a Great Fish
by David Kinney, Nonfiction – Sports
Plot Summary: A behind the scenes look at the annual Martha’s Vineyard Striper & Bluefish Derby, a month-long, 24/7 fishing tournament that draws an eclectic mix of competitors (including locals, foreigners, professionals, amateurs, grandmas, and kids).
My Thoughts: You don’t have to be an avid fisherman to enjoy this book, although serious anglers certainly will love it. Kinney gives you an entertaining mix of Martha’s Vineyard history, fishing strategy, love of competition, eccentric personalities, and unexpected results.
The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics
by Daniel James Brown, Nonfiction (Released June, 2013)
Plot Summary: The true story of Joe Rantz and his University of Washington teammates’ quest to win gold in the men’s eight rowing event at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.
My Thoughts: The Boys in the Boat is the best nonfiction book I’ve read this year (by far) and the best sports book I’ve read in the past few years! For those who have read my Sports Books List, you know that I’m obsessed with the Olympics, but rowing is not one of the Olympic sports I typically watch. Point being, you do not have to be into rowing (or even the Olympics) to enjoy this book. It reminded me a lot of Seabiscuit, not only because it’s set in the same time period, but also because Brown, like Seabiscuit‘s Laura Hillenbrand, managed to keep me fascinated by a sport that I have little interest in. The Boys in the Boat is a fantastic sports story – it seems like it could have been an ESPN 30 for 30 documentary! And beyond sports, it’s a fantastic historical underdog story. Rowing was apparently extremely popular in the 1930′s and received tons of national press coverage. Who knew?? Brown did a great job bringing this setting to life, as well as making the reader understand and, more importantly, be entertained by racing strategy and the technique of rowing. A tough assignment, if you ask me! Brown tells two stories simultaneously – the background of Joe Rantz and his Washington teammates’ rise to rowing prominence and Hitler’s planning and execution of the Berlin Games. I loved this juxtaposition. And, I loved learning about how kids grew up during the Great Depression – what an admirable bunch! Reading about the oarsmen’s survival and determination during such a hard time made me realize how easy kids have it today…and how soft and spoiled many of them consequently become. The Third Reich’s plan for the Berlin Olympics was impressive and horrifying. They essentially turned Berlin into a giant movie set to convince the world that there was no reason to fear the Third Reich and that the rumors about its’ treatment of Jews couldn’t possibly be true. I really can’t say enough great things about this book. It’s just a heartwarming story of good people reaching for the stars.
The Junction Boys: How 10 Days in Hell with Bear Bryant Forged A Champion Team at Texas A&M
by Jim Dent, Nonfiction – Sports
Plot Summary: The story of Bear Bryant’s first team (Texas A&M – 1954) to endure the 10 day “hell week” in Junction, Texas that later became legendary.
My Thoughts: The raw details of grueling practices, verbal and mental abuse, and lack of access to the most basic physical comforts make you feel for and root for these players. And, the same details will likely make you hate Bear Bryant at some points. By the end, there are enough heartwarming moments to make Bryant a bit more likable and respect his tough coaching methods. The fact that Dent doesn’t hold anything back is what makes The Junction Boys such a sports classic.
The Miracle of St. Anthony: A Season with Coach Bob Hurley and Basketball’s Most Improbable Dynasty
by Adrian Wojnarowski, Nonfiction – Sports
Plot Summary: The Miracle of St. Anthony chronicles Coach Bob Hurley (father of Duke’s Bobby Hurley) and his nationally ranked high school basketball team.
My Thoughts: The Miracle of St. Anthony is far more than just a sports book. It’s about overcoming obstacles, shaping lives, supporting teammates and the community, and creating a dynasty in the process. This is the kind of sports story that will give even the most lackadaisical sports fans goose bumps.
Those Guys Have All the Fun: Inside the World of ESPN
by James A. Miller & Tom Shales, Nonfiction – Sports
Plot Summary: An oral history of the founding, rise, and hurdles of ESPN.
My Thoughts: I expected Those Guys Have All the Fun to be a sports book full of stories about games and celebrity athletes. And, it does deliver on that count. The quotes from ESPN insiders and sports world figures were surprisingly (shockingly, at times) candid. What pleasantly surprised me was the focus on how the company was founded and built into a successful enterprise – I learned a lot and it gave Those Guys Have All the Fun a depth beyond just sports. This one is a business book too.
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk: A Novel
by Ben Fountain, Fiction
Plot Summary: Billy Lynn and his fellow members of Bravo Company return from Iraq as heros for their performance in the battle of Al-Ansakar Canal – and are taken on a “victory tour” culminating in a VIP visit to a Dallas Cowboys game at Texas Stadium.
My Thoughts: This book was a finalist for the National Book Award and a New York Times Notable Book of 2012, so I had high expectations going in. I was annoyed with the beginning, but the book eventually grew on me. Initially, Billy and his Company come across as petulant, crass, and incredibly immature and Fountain’s writing style bothered me (very stream of consciousness). But, once Fountain starts interspersing memories of the battle in Iraq and the Company’s family visits with their experiences at the Cowboys game, I saw a broader purpose in the things that had annoyed me. The Company showed outward disdain for shallow people doing shallow jobs back in the States (i.e. almost everyone they met), but it hit me that it must truly seem that way to someone who was yanked from an intense war experience and plopped down at an NFL football game full of glamour, sparkles, and shallow conversations with strangers who pretend to understand what the Company went through. While I don’t think this book warranted its National Book Award nomination and it does lack a true plot (rather, it is a portrayal of an experience), it is an eye-opening read that makes you think.
Charlie Wilson’s War
by George Crile, Nonfiction – History
The true story of Texas Congressman Charlie Wilson’s and CIA Agent Gust Avrakotos’ partnership to covertly fund the Afghani Mujahideen in their fight against the Soviet Union in the 1980’s.
My Thoughts: I learned so much about this piece of history and loved how relevant it is as a precursor to the current Islamic terrorist threat. But, the best part is the characters. Charlie Wilson is like the Chuck Bass of the U.S. House of Representatives – and Charlie Wilson’s War definitely covers his personal exploits. And then you’ve got Gust – you couldn’t make these people up!
Ghost Soldiers: The Epic Account of World War II’s Greatest Rescue Mission
by Hampton Sides, Nonfiction – History
Plot Summary: U.S. Army Rangers team up with local guerillas during WWII to rescue over 500 U.S. POWs (including survivors of the Bataan Death March) held in a Japanese camp in the Phillipines.
My Thoughts: If you thought the Japanese concentration camp portion of Unbroken was interesting, you will love Ghost Soldiers. The vivid descriptions of the horrific treatment the POWs endured are emotionally hard to read and captivating at the same time. Some of the personalities (i.e. Henry Mucci, the General in charge of the rescue mission) are characters and lighten up an appropriately heavy story.
Grunt by Mary Roach
Nonfiction (Released June 7, 2016)
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Plot Summary: “Grunt tackles the science behind some of a soldier’s most challenging adversaries—panic, exhaustion, heat, noise—and introduces us to the scientists who seek to conquer them.” (Goodreads)
My Thoughts: Mary Roach is known for delving deep into an odd topic (like what happens to cadavers in Stiff) and using her dry (and frequently morbid) humor to share her findings in a relatable way. In Grunt, she focuses on seemingly minor issues (many of which civilians encounter in their daily lives) that wreck havoc with the military and military issues that don’t get a lot of media attention, including bird strikes, hearing loss, diarrhea prevention, flies and sleep. Continue Reading…
Killing Pablo: The Hunt for the World’s Greatest Outlaw
by Mark Bowden, Nonfiction – History
Plot Summary: Killing Pablo is the true story of the hunt for Pablo Escobar and his capture, secretly led by the U.S.
My Thoughts: Any military/covert ops junkie will love Bowden’s story about the manhunt and capture of Escobar, especially the U.S.’ involvement. But, Killing Pablo also opened my eyes to the environment the Colombia dealers were operating in (they were loved in their communities in some ways), which contributed to the difficulty of taking them down.
On Wings of Eagles
by Ken Follett, Nonfiction – History
Plot Summary: The true story of Ross Perot’s, President of EDS at the time, rescue of two of his top Executives who had been jailed in an unstable, 1970’s Iran.
My Thoughts: Though completely true, On Wings of Eagles is so exciting it feels like a fictional thriller. I loved that Perot and Col. Bull Simmons (ex-Green Beret who was tasked with training Perot’s private “rescue team”) are throwbacks that will bravely risk everything to do what is right. It’s also interesting to think about the ramifications of something like this happening today – a private citizen defying the U.S. government, taking matters into his own hands, and basically creating an international incident. On Wings of Eagles will make those of you familiar with Perot only from his run for the presidency see him in a whole new light.
One Second After
by William R. Forstchen, Fiction
Plot Summary: The small town of Black Mountain, North Carolina fights to survive after the United States is hit by an EMP (electromagnetic pulse) attack.
My Thoughts: This is a book about something that has not yet happened on Earth, but is entirely possible. An EMP is a nuclear explosion that happens far above Earth, causing all present day electronics to instantly fry, sending civilization back a few centuries. There was a government report released to Congress about this threat the same day as the 9/11 Commission Report, which obviously meant it got zero attention. The story of Black Mountain is about how a small community tries its best to survive this disaster. This book is extremely harsh (but probably accurate) in portraying the disintegration of society and all the horrifying things that come with that. One Second After is not for the faint of heart, but is captivating if you can handle the barbarianism and are interested in little known threats to our country…and it will certainly make you think a bit differently the next time you lose power.
Thank You for Your Service
by David Finkel, Nonfiction (Released October, 2013)
Plot Summary: An exploration of mental and emotional trauma facing soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan and the military’s efforts to curb this group’s high suicide rate.
My Thoughts: Thank You for Your Service was named one of the Best Nonfiction Books of 2013 by Publishers Weekly and one of the Top 10 Books of 2013 by The Washington Post…and I wholeheartedly agree. This is a heartbreaking and moving series of stories about various members of the 2-16 Infantry Battalion and their families dealing with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) following war zone deployments. These men, even though they came home without a physical scratch, gave their lives as they and their families knew them to our country. The soldiers experience crippling anxiety and migraines, violent tendencies, depression, and memory loss. These effects cause immense pain and hardship for the soldiers’ families, as they see their father/husband/brother turn into a completely different human being…and, in many cases, a monster…and the wives are generally left trying to hold the family together. One soldier’s wife said of her husband’s months long stay in a mental rehab center, “I’m pissed. […] He gets to go fishing. He gets to go out on weekends. […] I’m always here, taking care of everything. This is not why I got married and had kids, to do this on my own. I’d like to stay in a hospital for a couple of weeks. And sleep.”. TBI (“the signature wound of war”, according to the military) is particularly relevant right now, as it is the same injury that football players have been suffering from and has been covered extensively in the media. While the football players’ TBI is caused by repeated flows to the head, the soldiers’ is caused by close proximity to repeated explosions. Finkel’s writing style is powerful and made the soldiers’ situations seem very stark and real. He quickly switched back and forth between discussion of heavy feelings and emotions and mundane details of life. It reminded me of the sequence in the pilot episode of “Friday Night Lights” (the TV show) when the director cuts back and forth between scenes of Jason Street’s spinal surgery and the football game going on simultaneously. Finkel also included macabre things the soldiers do to make light of their situations, but are probably horrifying to anyone else. For example, one of the soldiers used his bullet hole ridden war helmet as his Halloween candy bowl, no doubt terrifying Trick or Treaters. Though Thank You for Your Service is incredibly sad and is a totally unique look at the effects of war. I was completely engrossed and had trouble putting it down.
The Art of Intelligence: Lessons from a Life in the CIA’s Clandestine Service
by Henry A. Crumpton, Nonfiction – History
Plot Summary: Henry Crumpton, counter-terrorism expert and leader of the Afghanistan campaign for the CIA, discusses his career, the Afghanistan war, and US counter-terrorism policy.
My Thoughts: I was worried this book might be too technical, but Crumpton did a great job making it entertaining for average readers. I learned so much about our intelligence efforts, particularly relating to Al Qaeda BEFORE 9/11 and during the Afghanistan war. I never knew that the initial attack was run by the CIA – not the military or the Dept. of Defense – because they were the only ones with an understanding of the enemy. I was fascinated by the relationship between Washington politics and intelligence, the development of the Predator drone first as an intelligence gathering tool and then a weapon, and the use of many private sector executives (including Fortune 500 CEOs and University Presidents) to gather foreign intelligence and recruit foreign agents.
The Looming Tower
by Lawrence Wright, Nonfiction – History
Plot Summary: Historical account of how Al Qaeda (and really Islamic terrorism in general) grew into what it is now, what motivates the terrorists, and the U.S.’ response to the terrorist threat (and how we could have prevented 9/11).
My Thoughts: At some point, I think this book will end up as required reading in schools to help people understand the Islamic terrorist threat and how 9/11 happened. It goes back half a century to help articulate the motivations and psychology of terrorists. Though The Looming Tower has the potential to get bogged down in details, Wright does a great job of using anecdotal stories about key players to lighten things up. A must read for anyone interested in terrorism and 9/11.
The Right Stuff
by Tom Wolfe, Nonfiction – History
Plot Summary: A portrait of the personality type that enthusiastically chooses a career with 1 in 4 odds of death: the Navy test pilot and the earliest participants in the U.S. manned space program.
My Thoughts: My mom had been telling me to read The Right Stuff for a long time – and I had ignored her because I figured a 350 page book about Navy pilots and the space race would bore me to tears. But, true to Tom Wolfe form, The Right Stuff is mostly (very funny, incidentally) social commentary on the personalities in these professions and the general public as a whole during that time period.
Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World
by Michael Lewis, Nonfiction – Business
Plot Summary: Lewis explains the European debt crisis by focusing on the culture and social norms of Greece, Ireland, Iceland, Germany, and, because it has striking similarities to these European countries, the state of California.
My Thoughts: Who would have thought a book about the European debt crisis could be funny? Lewis’ social commentary on how each country’s culture brought about its downfall is hilarious and makes Boomerang appealing even to those who aren’t remotely interested in finance. Boomerang entertained me from start to finish, but also left me more educated in the end.
Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt
by Michael Lewis, Nonfiction – Business (Released March, 2014)
Plot Summary: The story of a group of people, led by Brad Katsuyama (a Royal Bank of Canada trader), who uncovered the recent rigging* of the U.S. stock market by high-frequency traders.
*Lewis and the media have used the word “rigged” to describe the current situation in the equity markets. I have a bit of an issue with this because it makes a more sensational headline for the book than the actual situation warrants. “Rigged” conjures sinister images of some Great Power of Oz intentionally structuring the stock market so that certain parties can always win. Based on Flash Boys, the situation seemed to me to be more of an unintended consequence caused by a government regulation (Reg NMS) that created unfair, but legal loopholes.
My Thoughts: I should say up front that I absolutely love Michael Lewis’ writing and am a huge fan of his previous books, particularly The Big Short. He’s a master at simplifying complex financial topics and spinning these potentially boring concepts into entertaining stories. He stays true to form with Flash Boys. Continue Reading…
Testosterone Inc: Tales of CEOs Gone Wild
by Christopher Byron, Nonfiction – Business
Plot Summary: A behind the scenes look at four top 1990’s CEOs’ personal (and occasionally professional) lives: Jack Welch (GE), Ron Perelman (Revlon), “Chainsaw” Al Dunlap (Sunbeam), and Dennis Kozlowski (Tyco).
My Thoughts: Byron was a columnist for the NY Post and most of this book feels like it could have appeared on Page Six – which obviously makes it awesome! And, the fact that the star CEOs had their heydays 15 years ago does not make this any less enjoyable. Testosterone, Inc. also covers the rise of the “celebrity” CEO; old news now, but a relatively new phenomenon when this was written.
The Big Rich: The Rise and Fall of the Greatest Texas Oil Fortunes
by Bryan Burrough, Nonfiction – Biogossip
Plot Summary: The story of the rise and fall of the “big four” Texas oil fortunes: H.L. Hunt, Clint Murchison, Roy Cullen, and Sid Richardson (Sid Bass’ uncle).
My Thoughts: The first 50 pages or so are heavy on the history of the oil industry – but, once you get past that, The Big Rich is juicy! These families are scandalous (H.L. Hunt was a bigamist his whole life) and eccentric, which makes for great anecdotes. They also become heavily involved in politics and attempt to transfer the central White House influence from the Northeast to Texas – with humorous result.
The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine
by Michael Lewis, Nonfiction – Business
Plot Summary: Lewis explains how and why the housing bubble and burst happened by focusing on the mentality of the few people (one of whom suffers from Asberger’s Syndrome) who saw it coming and acted on their instincts.
My Thoughts: Lewis is the master of making complex financial concepts relatively understandable AND making them entertaining. The Big Short is the best book out there on the housing bubble and should be required reading for anyone interested in business. But, Lewis even makes this a compelling story for those not interested in business through his focus on the personalities that saw it coming.
The Devil’s Casino: Friendship, Betrayal, and the High Stakes Games Played Inside Lehman Brothers
by Vicky Ward, Nonfiction – Business
Plot Summary: The story of the fall 2008 collapse of Lehman Brothers, focusing on the firm’s culture and characters that contributed to its demise.
My Thoughts: While The Devil’s Casino does cover the financial details of how Lehman failed, it’s Ward’s portrayal of Lehman’s culture of infighting and backstabbing that makes it a fun read. The central characters’ personalities and relationships with each other feel like an episode of “Days of Our Lives” – with a bit of financial education.
by Stephen King, Historical Fiction
Plot Summary: A high school teacher is given the opportunity to change history (i.e. prevent JFK’s assassination) by going back in time and faces tough dilemmas about the ripple effects of past events on the future.
My Thoughts: One of my favorite books of the past few years. Don’t be scared away by 11/22/63‘s time travel premise, even though it seems cheesy. Very quickly, King had me believing wholeheartedly in the world of Jake/George and enthralled with the story and characters. Don’t expect a run-of-the-mill Stephen King novel a la Misery or Pet Sematary.
After the Crash by Michel Bussi
Fiction – Mystery / Thriller (Released January 5, 2016)
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Summary: On December 23, 1980, a plane crashed in the French Alps killing all its passengers and crew except a baby girl, whose survival sets off a war between two families, one rich and one poor.
My Thoughts: After the Crash is a compelling and intricately spun thriller that hooked me from page one…despite the fact that I’m pretty burned out of twisty thrillers. I highly recommend you go in as blind as possible.This book hooked me immediately. I thought I’d “take a peek” at the beginning before moving on to a shorter book, but I’d sped through 40 pages before I knew it. Continue Reading…
Before The Flood
by John Sherman, Fiction
Plot Summary: A reporter explores the possibility that Manny, an orphan left on a priest’s doorstep, is the Son of Man (second coming of Christ) and the true nature of his purpose on earth.
My Thoughts: Like Stephen King’s 11/22/63, Before the Flood is what I call a “what if” book – a story about how something farfetched could possibly play out if it did happen in real life. The possibility that Manny is the second coming and whether his purpose is to save or judge is intriguing, suspenseful, and definitely makes you think. Before the Flood is well written – and the reporter’s viewpoint as a skeptical atheist keeps the lofty topic grounded in reality.
Bull Mountain by Brian Panowich
Southern Fiction (Released July 7, 2015)
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Summary: North Georgia’s Bull Mountain has been run by one family of outlaws (the Burroughs) for generations, but when a federal ATF (Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms) agent arrives to put a stop to the crime, Sheriff Clayton Burroughs’ family loyalty is tested.
My Thoughts: Brian Panowich’s debut novel is a jaw-dropping (yes, my jaw really did drop multiple times!) multi-generational family saga that feels like Southern “grit lit”, but reads like a thriller. It’s one of my favorite books of the summer and is a contender for my Favorite Books of 2015. Continue Reading…
Ghosts of Manhattan: A Novel
by Douglas Brunt, Fiction (Released October, 2012)
Plot Summary: Amid the 2005 mortgage bubble, thirty five year old Bear Stearns bond trader, Nick Farmer, faces disillusionment with his career decision, personal life, and strategy decisions at Bear.
My Thoughts: My in-laws were the first people to tell me I should read this book and I was a little skeptical because I’d read so many “Wall Street excess tell-alls” that they had started to run together in my head and ceased to be interesting. There’s only so many times you can read about money, drunkenness, cocaine, and hookers before it becomes a bit repetitive. But, this book was different…in a good way! First, it’s fiction and the author was not a Wall Street trader, so it’s technically not a “roman a clef” about his real experience. But, obviously the setting and characters are based on what Wall Street was generally like in the middle of the mortgage bubble. Second, Brunt’s observations about the social hierarchy in the banking/trading/finance world and the situations and characters you encounter there are witty, spot-on, and well said. I would go so far as to say that Brunt comes close to Tom Wolfe territory with his social commentary. Though Brunt does include his fair share of partying, drugs, and prostitutes, it’s the social commentary and his PERFECT analogies that were the most entertaining for me. Nick is also having an inner struggle with his career choice and the effects of that lifestyle on his marriage, which gives the novel more depth than your average Wall Street excess tell-all and makes Nick a more sympathetic character. Finally, this book deals with a theme that a lot of people my age (35, like Nick) are confronting. What happens when you choose a career right out of college, without knowing much about what that career really entails, and thinking you may do that job for a couple years before moving on, then wake up fifteen years later still doing this thing that you never intended to be your life’s work? How do you make a change at age thirty five when many people have families to support and how do you figure out what you really want to do with your life? These are difficult and relatable questions and Nick goes through the range of emotions and thought processes as he’s working this out. Ghosts of Manhattan successfully crosses the Wall Street excess tell-all and the Tom Wolfe-style social satire for a great summer read…particularly for guys.
Lonesome Dove: A Novel
by Larry McMurtry, Fiction
Plot Summary: Another sweeping epic of the wild west centered around two Texas Rangers on a long cattle drive.
My Thoughts: I am not a fan of Westerns and did not even bother seeing the miniseries based on this book. My mother-in-law (who also doesn’t care about Westerns) said she loved it, so I gave it a shot and I agreed. Lonesome Dove has a great cast of characters, suspense, romance, and humor.
Natchez Burning by Greg Iles
Fiction (Released April, 2014)
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Plot Summary: Penn Cage, former prosecutor and current Mayor of Natchez, teams up with a local reporter to fight the accusation that his Doctor father murdered his former nurse, and in the process, find themselves in the middle of a battle over decades old Civil Rights murders.
My Thoughts: Natchez Burning is a sweeping epic of Civil Rights in Natchez, Mississippi, from the 1960s to present day and is the first of three books in a series. Don’t be afraid of the length – Natchez Burning is absolutely gripping and reads like a John Grisham thriller…making you forget it’s 800 pages long! Continue Reading…
Shantaram: A Novel
by Gregory David Roberts, Fiction
Plot Summary: An Australian convict escapes maximum security prison to Bombay, where he finds friendship, love, and an unbelievable amount of adventure.
My Thoughts: The amazing thing about this book is that Lin’s (the Australian escaped convict) experiences are said to be largely autobiographical, while the characters and dialogue are fiction. If even a quarter of the things that happened to this guy are true, it’s one heck of a story that takes you to a Bombay slum, into the inner workings of a local Mafia Council, and to Afghanistan during the war with the Russians. Shantaram is a love letter to Bombay, but Roberts does not shy away from covering its dark side (corruption, squalor, a slave trade, drug culture, and an entrenched Mafia). He portrays the “dark side” elements almost with endearment…like they’re offbeat quirks that add to the city’s charm. Lin’s lovable friend, Prabaker, steals the show with his hilarious broken English…I’m not sure if his humor is intentional or not, but it’s funny nonetheless. My one criticism is that Roberts often waxes philosophical and the language he uses when writing these unnecessary sections is completely over the top. Despite the occasional overwriting, Roberts packs enough adventure in to keep you on your toes for the entire 944 pages of this book.
Shotgun Lovesongs: A Novel
by Nickolas Butler, Fiction (Released March, 2014)
Plot Summary: Four childhood best friends from the small town of Little Wing, Wisconsin reconnect at a wedding and try to find their places in the adult world.
My Thoughts: Shotgun Lovesongs is a beautifully written book about the restorative qualities of old friends, “home”, and the simple life – and, it’s one of my favorite books of 2014 (along with The Wife, The Maid, and The Mistress, Black Chalk, and Bittersweet). Continue Reading…
by J.R. Moehringer, Historical Fiction
Plot Summary: Willie Sutton, the notorious Depression-era bank robber who was on the FBI’s first ever Most Wanted List, is released from prison on Christmas Eve and takes a newspaper reporter and photographer on a trip down memory lane.
My Thoughts: Sutton contains lots of action that you would expect from a story about a bank robber – two of his escapes from maximum security prison left me wondering if he was the inspiration for Andy Dufresne’s breakout from Shawshank State Penitentiary. But, Willie Sutton wasn’t your average bank robber – he seriously studied his craft, was an avid reader, fancied himself a “right guy”, and was considered somewhat of a folk hero by much of the general public. Moehringer probably portrayed Sutton as a much better guy than he actually was, but it was great for the book. Sutton is not just driven by a good story, there is a pleasant rhythm to Moehringer’s writing style – short sentences, pared down language, and spot on dialogue (especially Sutton’s).
The Bonfire of the Vanities: A Novel
by Tom Wolfe, Fiction
Plot Summary: Set in 1980’s New York, Sherman McCoy, a wealthy NYC bond trader, and his mistress are involved in a hit-and-run in the Bronx, sparking a racially charged trial and tabloid battle.
My Thoughts: Wolfe’s social commentary is at its best covering the go-go 1980’s of NYC finance, racial tension, and politics. Though fictional, Bonfire of the Vanities is a far more entertaining and all-encompassing version of Michael Lewis’ Liar’s Poker. Wolfe goes beyond the financial focus of Liar’s Poker to explore the implications for other areas of society at that time.
The Charm School
by Nelson DeMille, Fiction
Plot Summary: A spy thriller about a secret KGB operation (The Charm School) in the era of Glasnost and the implications for US/Russian relations of revealing it to the world.
My Thoughts: DeMille is my favorite “page turner” author and The Charm School is one of my favorite DeMille books. You’ll love the characters’ witty banter, the portrait of Russian life, and the thrill of the investigation into The Charm School. Best of all, this is one of those “what if” books that left me wondering if something like the Charm School could really exist.
The Gods of Gotham (A Timothy Wilde Novel)
by Lyndsay Faye, Historical Fiction
Plot Summary: Set in 1845 New York, Timothy Wilde finds a young girl covered in blood in his first days as a New York Copper Star (early incarnation of the NYPD), which sets him on a path to solve a mystery of disappearing child prostitutes.
My Thoughts: This is a great book that, while historically accurate (George Washington Matsell, head of the Copper Stars, was a real person), reads like a suspenseful mystery. The Gods of Gotham is set during the Irish potato famine, during which many Irish Catholics immigrated to New York, causing massive racial and religious prejudices in the city. Faye does a great job portraying this social upheaval, especially the anti-Catholicism, while weaving it so well into the narrative that you don’t even notice that you’re learning. The murder mystery is compelling and does not have an obvious solution. The main characters are likable and surprising – most are not who they seem to be by the end of the story. This book is a fun way to learn about old New York and the formation of the New York Police Department.
The Great Santini
by Pat Conroy, Fiction (Released April, 1976)
Plot Summary: Ben Meecham and his three siblings (Mary Anne, Karen, and Matt) grow up under the thumb of their larger than life, volatile fighter pilot father, Bull.
My Thoughts: I recently discovered that Conroy is writing a nonfiction memoir (The Death of Santini, due out in October) about his real-life relationship with his father, the inspiration for The Great Santini‘s Bull Meecham. I first read Santini in high school and remember loving it, but I didn’t remember enough detail to write about it for this site. And, I wanted to be up to snuff with my background to fully appreciate his upcoming memoir, so I thought it was high time for a re-read of one of my favorite authors! The first 2-3 chapters may be the best opening of a book in terms of character and story introduction that I’ve ever read. It perfectly sets up Bull’s crazy personality, his imposition of military structure on his home life and family, and, obviously, his temper. He also immediately comes across as funny and I can’t decide whether or not his humor is intentional. I chuckled out loud when Bull stands on the front steps of his house at 2 am, with his entire family loaded in the car ready to move to South Carolina, and yells “stand by for a fighter pilot”. I just pictured an overloaded Griswold family style station wagon almost dragging along the ground while Bull acts like he’s operating a high performance fighter jet in a war zone. Bull and Lillian (Mrs. Meecham) both ended up being much more complex characters than I remember from my initial read, or maybe I just view them differently now that I’m older. Bull has more likeable traits than I remember (he’s loved by many of his Marine Corps colleagues, he does sweet things for his wife and children, and he comes to the defense/rescue of his children in many cases) and Lillian is more dislikable than I remember. She outwardly appears to be a Saint and martyr for putting up with Bull, but she is actually a classic enabler, concerned more about appearances than the well being of her children. And, she constantly foregoes standing up for her children in favor of making excuses for Bull’s antics. I disliked Lillian more and more as the book went on and wound up wondering which personality type (Bull’s or Lillian’s) was worse. It was like Conroy was reading my mind because he has Ben and Mary Anne have this exact conversation towards the end of the book. He, of course, sums up the argument eloquently, saying “you always know where Dad stands and he knows where he stands, but no one will ever know where […] Darling Lillian stands, not even […] Darling Lillian. Mom can hurt people more with her piety than Dad can with his temper.”. Finally, Conroy hilariously skewers the Marine Corps (and military in general) and the Catholic Church, even comparing them to each other in a funny section of Bull’s thoughts while daydreaming in church. This is no doubt a heartbreaking book (even more so knowing much of the material came from Conroy’s real life) and it absolutely nails the conflicted feelings of having a horrifying, volatile, and sometimes abusive parent. And, as is the norm for Conroy, it’s beautifully written. I think Conroy could write about paint drying and I would love reading it!
The Lion’s Game (John Corey)
by Nelson DeMille, Fiction
Plot Summary: John Corey, ex-NYPD homicide cop and the central character from Plum Island, teams with Kate Mayfield to track a Libyan terrorist (Asad Khalil aka The Lion, whose family was killed in the 1986 Qaddafi bombings) as he seeks revenge on the Libyan bombers.
My Thoughts: The Lion’s Game is obviously suspenseful and fast-paced, but John Corey’s constant saltiness is what adds a different kind of entertainment to what could have been a run-of-the-mill thriller. The romantic tension between John and Kate is somewhat predictable, but does provide the context for most of the witty dialogue in the book.
The Lords of Discipline
by Pat Conroy, Fiction (Released 1980)
Plot Summary: Granting the wish of his dying father, Will McLean attends Carolina Military Institute (i.e.”The Institute”) in Charleston amid serious doubts about the military and must confront a secret organization that is rumored to exist on campus.
My Thoughts: The Lords of Discipline is the first book I’ve added to my All-Time Favorites List since starting this blog. Like The Great Santini, The Lords of Discipline is somewhat autobiographical (it’s based on Conroy’s experience as a cadet at The Citadel, South Carolina’s military college) and deals with his love/hate (but, mostly hate) relationship with the military. This book is a study in contrasts between Conroy’s love affair with the city of Charleston and his hatred of its military college, The Citadel. Continue Reading…
The Panther (John Corey)
by Nelson DeMille, Fiction
Plot Summary: Anti-Terrorist Task Force Agents John Corey and his wife, Kate, are recruited to track down one of the masterminds of the USS Cole bombing in Yemen.
My Thoughts: If you’ve read any of Nelson DeMille’s other John Corey novels (i.e. Plum Island, Night Fall, Wild Fire, The Lion’s Game, or The Lion), you can expect more of the same from The Panther. John Corey’s sarcastic and politically incorrect commentary is on full display (despite sometimes overdoing it) and The Panther is packed with terrorist fighting action. The plot twists and turns make for an easy read that is hard to put down. But, DeMille really differentiates The Panther from his other Corey novels through his focus on the country of Yemen (“dysfunctional would be an improvement”). DeMille tends to write about topics that are pertinent to the current anti-terrorism reality and Yemen is certainly a rising Al Qaeda hotbed and terrorist threat. His description of the country, the people, the government, the Islamic Fundamentalists, and the war for control (between the Yemeni government, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and the Yemeni tribal warlords) is refreshingly candid and different from anything you’ll see in the news about this country. The Panther is a double whammy – thrillingly plot driven and informative.
The Throwback Special by Chris Bachelder
Fiction (Released March 14, 2016)
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Summary: Bachelder uses an annual gathering of a group of middle aged men to reenact the 1985 NFL play where Lawrence Taylor broke Joe Theismann’s leg (and ended his career) to opine on broader life themes.
My Thoughts: The Throwback Special is a book that’s about far more than the title and summary suggest. It’s about life (marriage, parenting, insecurities, human behavior, etc) with a weird football tradition as the backdrop, not the other way around. Continue Reading…
The Truth And Other Lies by Sascha Arango
Fiction (Released June 23, 2015)
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Summary: “Dark, witty, and suspenseful, this literary crime thriller reminiscent of The Dinner and The Silent Wife follows a famous author whose wife—the brains behind his success—meets an untimely death, leaving him to deal with the consequences.” – Amazon
My Thoughts: The Truth And Other Lies is the first summer book to blow my mind (and, it’s a translated debut)! It’s a tightly packed, demented thriller that kept me guessing from page one through the end. Continue Reading…
by Alex Grecian, Historical Fiction
Plot Summary: Following Jack the Ripper’s reign, London’s Scotland Yard “Murder Squad” must solve the murder of one of their own detectives.
My Thoughts: This book is somewhat similar to The Gods of Gotham, which I reviewed last year and included on my 2012 Holiday Gift Ideas List. However, I liked this one a little better than The Gods of Gotham, mainly because of the historical context of post-Ripper London. I never realized how terrified and paralyzed Londoners were following the Ripper’s reign, and also how public sentiment turned against Scotland Yard for failing to catch him. Another interesting dynamic is that Scotland Yard was having a hard time wrapping its head around the existence of “serial killers” and was mentally fighting the fact that someone other than the Ripper might be killing just for sport. Aside from the context, there were three cases going on at once and part of the suspense is trying to figure out how they will all connect in the end. And, there is a focus on the developing forensics technology (including fingerprinting) of the time and the methodology of solving cases without the advanced technology we have today. If you are interested in criminal history or the development of forensics, you will find this book fascinating.
Up Country (Paul Brenner)
by Nelson DeMille, Fiction
Plot Summary: Retired Army Officer Paul Brenner (the hero from The General’s Daughter) returns to Vietnam to find the one witness to a murder that occurred during the Tet Offensive.
My Thoughts: Up Country contains the suspense and the salty, sarcastic dialogue of a DeMille thriller. But, the setting in Vietnam and Brenner’s flashbacks/memories of the war added an educational element for me that differentiated Up Country from his other books.
Where All Light Tends to Go by David Joy
Fiction (Released March 3, 2015)
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Summary: Jacob McNeely, son of his small North Carolina mountain town’s biggest outlaw, struggles to separate himself from the life of crime he was born into and to fight for the girl he loves (Maggie).
My Thoughts: I’ve read some great “Grit Lit” this year (Bull Mountain,The Shore, The Animals), so I knew I had to make time for David Joy’s debut novel. It’s a story about fathers and sons, loyalty, love, and trying to claw your way out of your given circumstances. Continue Reading…
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot by David Shafer
Fiction (Released August, 2014)
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Plot Summary: A Burma (aka Myanmar) based non-profit worker (Leila), a directionless heir to a board game empire (Leo), and an one hit wonder self-help guru (Mark) are improbably brought together to prevent an international cabal (the Committee) from taking control of all the world’s information.
My Thoughts: Whiskey Tango Foxtrot was somewhat of a shot-in-the-dark book for me. I went into it with few expectations and little understanding of what the book was truly about (the blurb was somewhat nonsensical!), but I was pleasantly surprised by Shafer’s snarky writing style and well-done character development. I’m definitely tacking Whiskey Tango Foxtrot onto my swiftly growing list of stellar 2014 debut novels! Continue Reading…
Winter of the World: Book Two of the Century Trilogy
by Ken Follett, Historical Fiction
Plot Summary: In the sequel to Fall of Giants, the second generation of the five families from FOG experience World War II, from the build-up through the aftermath.
My Thoughts: I recommend reading Fall of Giants before tackling Winter of the World, since Follett does not recap the background of the five families who star in this book. That being said, I loved finding out what happened to the Fall of Giants families and, though Follett focuses on the second generation, the original family members still play a role here. I learned an incredible amount about WWII – especially about how the German people could possibly allow the Nazis to rise to power. I was also fascinated by the West’s alliance with the Soviet Union and the implications of the fact that they (the West and the Soviet Union) would inevitably end up enemies after the war ended. And, most importantly, the characters and Follett’s storytelling made all this history highly entertaining! I can’t wait for the third book in this trilogy (Edge of Eternity – expected in 2014), which will take place during the Cold War.
All Over but the Shoutin’
by Rick Bragg, Nonfiction – Memoir
Plot Summary: Bragg recounts his childhood growing up destitute, with an alcoholic and mostly absentee father, in rural Alabama.
My Thoughts: Heart-breaking, but hilarious at the same time. Mixes stories of “young-boy-in-the-country” hi-jinks with the impact of an irresponsible, alcoholic father on his family. As a counterpoint to his father, Bragg’s memories of his mother add a much-needed positive element.
Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief
by Lawrence Wright, Nonfiction
Plot Summary: The story behind L. Ron Hubbard’s (LRH) founding of Scientology, its links to the entertainment industry, and the current state of the “religion”.
My Thoughts: I found it tough to separate my thoughts on this book from my thoughts on Scientology itself, so I will include both here. First, the book. If you’re using a Kindle, do not be alarmed at the very slow rate your “% completed” rises…the actual book ends before 70% (the rest is acknowledgements and sources). Going Clear reminded me a lot of Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer, just swapping out Scientology for Mormonism. Part 1 is mostly about the Scientology beliefs and LRH’s life and is a bit tedious at times. Wright is known as a meticulous researcher (as evidenced in his book on Al Qaeda, The Looming Tower), but he sometimes goes overboard. A lot of the tedium for me was in the detail of the actual Scientology beliefs and in LRH’s writing, which can be completely unintelligible because the beliefs sound insane and they basically use their own language. The parts about LRH’s life were more interesting – he seems to me to be a narcissistic con man. Even his son is quoted in the book as saying LRH’s goal was to be “the most powerful being in the universe”. Wright illuminates the glaring differences between the Church’s narrative of LRH’s life and the actual evidence supporting their claims – and this is where his meticulous research is a huge advantage. Part 2 was my favorite. Why? Because it dealt with Scientology’s connections with Hollywood – i.e. celebrity gossip! Wright hits Tom Cruise at about 37% of the way through and he is a large presence through the remainder of the book. You also get some decent dirt on John Travolta, Kelly Preston, and Kirstie Alley. Part 3 is mostly about the current state of the religion (including statements from defectors and media critics). One of the most interesting aspects of the book (aside from the celebrity gossip, of course!) is the question of whether Scientology is a “religion” or a “commercial enterprise”. The Church fought the IRS on this point for years and is now classified as a religion, which means they get an astounding number of protections and benefits under the law. However, Scientology seems to me to be more of a self-help philosophy than a religion (which makes sense because it grew out of LRH’s 1950 self-help book, Dianetics). It does have some rational theories and methods for improving your self-esteem, communication skills, etc. And, this is the sales pitch that is used to attract recruits, along with the brilliant “rumor” that the highest levels of the entertainment industry are full of Scientologists who try to help out “like-minded” up and comers. What wide-eyed wannabe actress wouldn’t sign up for that upon landing in L.A.? But, the upper level beliefs are at times insane and sickening. For example, Scientologists believe that LRH did not actually die, but merely “dropped his body” and will come back to earth in the relatively near future. To be prepared for his return, the Church keeps a fully staffed $10M mansion stocked with his clothes and personal items. The most sickening parts are the Church’s views on family and children. Children “belong to the Church” and are basically separated from their parents at the upper levels and pressed into Church service. Sea Org (the Church’s “clergy”) members are not even allowed to have children. And, if your spouse begins to question the faith, a Scientology member will be “counseled” (i.e. forced) to divorce him or her. And, it’s a stretch of the imagination to take the actual beliefs seriously because they sound like a kids’ video game – using terms like “operating thetan”, “Xenu”, “Galactic Confederacy”, and “wall of fire”. You wonder about the sanity of people that truly believe this stuff.
Popular Crime: Reflections on the Celebration of Violence
by Bill James, Nonfiction – Crime
Plot Summary: A study of tabloid crime from the 1800’s through present day including the implications of the media’s involvement in crimes and trials, the public’s fascination with certain types of crimes, theories of famous unsolved crimes (i.e. JFK’s assassination and JonBenet Ramsey), and thoughts on the criminal justice system.
My Thoughts: This is a totally random book that I discovered in a recent Bill Simmons column on ESPN. Though PC is a bit random and includes too many obscure cases, James’ discussion of famous cases (i.e. Sam Sheppard, the Zodiac, the Boston Strangler, the Lindbergh Baby, OJ Simpson, Robert Hansen, and JonBenet Ramsey) is fascinating. He also includes interesting macro level observations about crime such as the fact that many serial killers are sons of prostitutes. PC isn’t for everyone, but it’s an unique read if you find yourself following crime cases in the news.
The Chris Farley Show: A Biography in Three Acts
by Tom Farley, Jr. and Tanner Colby, Nonfiction
Plot Summary: Chris Farley’s life story, told through interviews with friends, co-workers, and family.
My Thoughts: When my brother recommended this book to me, I told him I was excited for something light after Fall of Giants. He said, “this is not a light read – Chris Farley is a complex guy.” He was right – as I read, I found myself talking to my husband about Chris’ issues with his dad, his insecurity and compulsive desire to please people, his earnest naivety in cutthroat Hollywood…and of course about how all of this fed his addictions. TCFS is not a juicy Hollywood tell-all. While it certainly contains juicy stories, they’re told in the context of painting a rich picture of Farley’s personality – the good and the bad.
The Devil in the White City: A Saga of Magic and Murder at the Fair that Changed America
by Erik Larson, Nonfiction – History
Plot Summary: The true story of the creation of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and the serial killer masquerading as a doctor who cast a shadow over the proceedings.
My Thoughts: The suspense and drama of the search for H.H. Holmes (the serial killer) made DIWC seem like a thrilling fiction novel. As an added bonus, I learned a lot about the 1893 World’s Fair, which Larson managed to make thoroughly entertaining.
The Presidents Club: Inside the World’s Most Exclusive Fraternity
by Michael Duffy and Nancy Gibbs, Nonfiction – History
Plot Summary: The stories of the relationships between former and current U.S. presidents from Herbert Hoover through Obama.
My Thoughts: This book is a totally unique way to view the office of the Presidency and the Presidents themselves. It’s not a policy book – the focus here is on personalities and relationships. It’s somewhat amazing that the same people that will selflessly go to any length to protect the office of the Presidency will also selfishly go to any length to rehabilitate or shape their personal legacies. Obviously, these two goals often conflict, resulting in some drama. Nixon was famous for constantly trying to erase his legacy of Watergate and for being unable to step back from the “policy game”, while Carter fancied himself a master diplomat and was famous for “going rogue” under the guise of “helping” sitting Presidents conduct foreign policy. The Presidents Club explores some fascinating bi-partisan relationships that blossomed after brutal campaigning ended: Clinton often talked foreign policy with Nixon, Kennedy consulted Eisenhower after the Bay of Pigs fiasco, and, as has been well-publicized, Bush 41 and Clinton partnered on a variety of projects after both left office. This book is easy to read and is a must for anyone interested in Presidential history.