Book Reviews

Alan's haunting novel of the AIDS epidemic, As If Death Summoned, was released on World AIDS Day, December 1, 2020, and has won the Foreword INDIES Book of the Year Awards. Watch the book trailer here. Read the reviews here.

Steven Pinker


Cain talked with Abel his brother: and it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him. With a world population of exactly four, that works out to a homicide rate of 25 percent, which is about a thousand times higher than the equivalent rates in Western countries today.

       from  The Better Angels of Our Nature


Larry Colton


Chuck opened the small gift box and removed a Saint Christopher’s medal … “It’s weird,” he said. “For the last few days I’ve had a feeling that something is going to happen on this patrol.”

“Like what?”

“I don’t know. It’s just a feeling that won’t go away.”

“Why do you think that is?”

He took her by the hand. “Probably because for the first time in my life I have somebody I really care about.”

It was the closest he’d come to saying he loved her.

                       from  No Ordinary Joes


Hardwired to tell our stories

In Ridley Scott’s classic sci-fi film, Blade Runner, the dying leader of the replicants (androids programmed with built-in termination dates) recalls the extraordinary experiences he has had and sadly realizes “all those moments will be lost in time like tears in the rain.”

There seems to be something hardwired into us humans that makes us want to tell our stories. From prehistoric cave paintings to the current plethora of self-published memoirs, we seem to have this deep need to leave some kind of testament that we were here, and that what we personally experienced was significant and worth sharing.

Larry Colton, the featured writer at this year’s Word Catcher event and author of Goat Brothers and Counting Coup, tells the stories of four men in his most recent book, No Ordinary Joes.

Chuck Verhalin of Dundee, New York, Bob Palmer of Medford, Oregon, Tim McCoy of Dalhart, Texas, and Gordy Cox of Yakima, Washington were all serving on the submarine USS Grenadier when it was damaged fatally by an aerial torpedo on April 23, 1943, and sank to the bottom of the Strait of Malacca. Through a daring maneuver, the crew was able to float the sub slowly to the surface where they were met by a Japanese warship and became prisoners of war.

Had they known what was ahead of them, the crew might have chosen to remain on the ocean’s bottom. Like Dick Cheney, the Japanese military could not be bothered with the niceties of the Geneva Convention, and the brutality, even outright cruelty, the prisoners experienced from their guards is harrowing to read.

The majority of the book covers their experiences as sailors, then prisoners, each chapter written from one of the four men’s viewpoints. Eventually, with the war’s end, they were liberated and returned to a very different America than they had left. All settled into civilian life, finding wives, having children, and making a living.

We are then shuttled sixty years into the future where these young men are now old men in their eighties, “whose lives describe the lifetime burden of war.” Each has problems with alcohol, women, and with their sons.

They wanted their stories told, and Colton performed a tremendous service to them by writing this book. It’s perhaps unfortunate that none of the four lived to read it. But then, the stories we want to leave aren’t intended for us anyway.


This review first appeared in The Columbia River Reader (April 15-May 14, 2012.) Reprinted with permission.


Katherine Boo

Random House

“Always I was thinking how to try to make my life nicer, more okay, and nothing got better,” Sunil said. “So now I’m going to try to do it the other way. No thinking how to make anything better, just stopping my mind, then who knows? Maybe then something good could happen.”

Abdul swatted him. “I lose my head, listening to you,” he said. He felt old, sitting next to someone who still had ideas.

           from  Behind the Beautiful Forevers


Too poor to afford the luxury of guilt

Along the roadway leading to the Mumbai International Airport, there is a long concrete wall covered with sunshine-yellow advertisements for floor tiles with the running slogan, “Beautiful Forever.” On the other side of the wall is the vast sprawling slum of Annawadi.

Katherine Boo, Pulitzer-prize winning reporter and staff writer for The New Yorker, spent three years getting to know the inhabitants of Annawadi, and has written a powerful and moving account of their lives that resembles a Dickens novel more than a sociological study.

Certainly, many are characters worthy of Dickens: wily and cunning Asha, who aspires to become a slumlord; Fatima the One Leg, hysterical and bitter, whose desperate self-immolation will scorch many innocent lives; Corporator Subhash Sawant, elected official of the slum district, epitomizes the corrupt politician, dressed in his white safari suit with “enough oil in his hair to fry garlic.”

And, as in any good Dickens tale, there are the waifs: Abdul, a youth who works hard as a garbage trader, supporting his disabled father and mother and their large family; Manju, Asha’s lovely 18-year old daughter, who aspires to teach and help others out of their poverty, a rare beautiful flower in a fetid swamp; and Sunil, a twelve year old street urchin who looks nine due to malnourishment, living by his wits and continually dreaming of a better life.

Dickens wrote his popular stories against the backdrop of the social ills of his time, a lesson Boo has learned. She portrays corruption in India as a way of life, among the politicians (to be expected), but also in the hospitals, schools, and the so-called justice system. When Abdul is falsely accused of a terrible tragedy, the court has him examined to determine whether he, at five-foot-one and weighing 105 pounds, is a minor or an adult. If determined to be an adult, he goes to the notorious Arthur Road prison where he faces rape and brutality while awaiting trial. After examining him, the doctor tells Abdul that he is seventeen years old if he pays four thousand rupees, twenty years old if he doesn’t.

An economic pecking order exists in the slum where the destitute prey on those even more destitute than themselves, and life is reduced to its basics: a 2-year old whose chronic ill health is draining a family’s meager resources “accidentally” drowns in a basin of water. The people of Annawadi are so poor they can’t even afford the luxury of guilt. Human values, like dignity, compassion, honesty, are subordinated to the primary value of survival.

Boo concludes, “It is easy, from a safe distance, to overlook the fact that in undercities governed by corruption, where exhausted people vie on scant terrain for very little, it is blisteringly hard to be good. The astonishment is that some people are good, and that many people try to be…”


This review first appeared in The Columbia River Reader (June15-July 14, 2012.) Reprinted with permission.


Charlotte Rogan

Little, Brown and Company


Hannah stamped her foot against the floor of the prison van and cried. “What is this, a witch trial? Is the only way we can prove our innocence by drowning?” I replied that perhaps there was a more profound point to be made about innocence, that perhaps a person could not be both alive and innocent...

                                     from  The Lifeboat     


Three weeks adrift in a metaphor

I first read Lord of the Flies when I was in seventh grade. When I read it several years later in high school, I was surprised that it was the same book. Instead of a simple boys adventure story, the novel had become something much deeper and darker, and layered with meanings.

I had this same sense when reading Charlotte Rogan’s The Lifeboat; that it was a metaphor for humanity.

The story is set in 1914. The Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife have just been assassinated and the world is rapidly moving toward global war. But it could just as well be 2014, as the planet teeters toward ecological cataclysm.

Like many of us, the passengers on the ocean liner, Empress Alexandra, choose to remain oblivious to the disaster coming. “Imagine, all that fuss about one dead duke,” says Grace Winter, the 22-year old narrator. Newly wed, she is more concerned about how her husband’s mother will accept her.

Following a mysterious explosion, the ship sinks, and Grace joins an overcrowded lifeboat (It seems a requirement in survival literature that the lifeboat must be overcrowded).

Mr. Hardie, one of the ship’s crew, takes charge; he knows what needs to be done. He beats away the swimmers with an oar, since they would sink the boat. Civilization depends upon its Hardies (hard versus soft?) to do the ugly things that must be done and that most of us wouldn’t have the nerve to do. They leave a small child in the water, clinging to its dead mother.

Opposing Mr. Hardie is the formidable Mrs. Grant, “holding the higher moral ground,” who will come to challenge his authority. She would have saved the child; she would have probably tried to save the desperate swimmers who would then have capsized the lifeboat and all would have drowned. Grace is caught between the two of them.

Like most survival stories, the novel may be taken as an allegory for what happens when life is reduced to its basics. The news is not encouraging. It was three weeks before the survivors were rescued, and Grace, now on trial for murder, realizes that “The bare bones of our natures were showing…I couldn’t see that there was anything good or noble left once food and shelter were taken away.”

The story can be enjoyed (if that’s the right word) purely as a survival epic, or as a metaphor for humanity. There are the strong, the weak, the self-sacrificing, and the majority who just cling to their life(boat) each day.

The good news is that most are rescued; but they now must live with “survivor’s guilt”—the suspicion that one’s survival perhaps wasn’t worth the cost.


This review first appeared in The Columbia River Reader (August 15-September 14, 2012.) Reprinted with permission.


Gillian Flynn

Crown Publishers


I feel myself trying to be charming, and then I realize I’m obviously trying to be charming, and then I try to be even more charming to make up for the fake charm, and then I’ve basically turned into Liza Minelli: I’m dancing in tights and sequins, begging you to love me.

                                        from  Gone Girl


Anatomy of a marriage, and maybe murder

In my university philosophy class, we were told that, in addition to the partners, any relationship also contains each partner’s projection of the other person—how we see him or her—so that when two people go to bed together, there are actually four people in that bed. I suspect Professor Canning’s more profound point was lost on our group of college sophomores, fantasizing with glazed eyes being part of a foursome.

Who we are and who we seem is key to Gillian Flynn’s mystery thriller, Gone Girl. We are reminded that things are not always as they appear. In fact, things rarely are.

Amy Elliot Dunne is missing; there are signs that she was abducted, possibly killed, and her husband, Nick Dunne, looks like the prime suspect.

The novel is narrated by Nick and Amy in alternating chapters, Amy through her diary, providing the anatomy of a marriage, and possibly a murder. We learn of their previously happy marriage in New York City (“We do silly things, like last weekend we drove to Delaware because neither of us ever had sex in Delaware”) but everything changes when they lose their jobs in the 2008 recession (“His and her lay-offs, isn’t that sweet?”)

They move back to Nick’s hometown in Missouri—“a quaint little 1950s town that bloated itself into a basic midsize suburb and dubbed it progress.” Nick and his twin sister, Margo, buy a bar with Amy’s inherited money to ride out the recession, but Amy, coming from a sophisticated, well-to-do East coast family, becomes increasingly unhappy stuck in the Midwest, and their marriage begins to buckle under the strain (“There’s something disturbing about recalling a warm memory and feeling utterly cold.”)

Aside from the mystery of what happened to Amy Dunne, there is some clever and insightful writing about relationships. Nick realizes his wife is “only remotely like the woman I fell in love with.” Amy wonders “if that is at the root of his distaste for me: He’s let me see his shortcomings, and he hates me for knowing them.” Nick confides, “Amy likes to play God when she’s not happy. Old Testament God.”

“Isn’t that what every marriage is, anyway?” concludes Amy. “Just a lengthy game of he-said, she-said?”

He-said, she-said, indeed! As we read their chapters, our sympathies slide back and forth between the two of them. The revelations keep coming, and with each one, marriage seems less and less like a good idea. Even for avid readers of thrillers, this is probably not the best book to give as a wedding present.


This review first appeared in The Columbia River Reader (September 15-October 14, 2012.) Reprinted with permission.


Karen Thompson Walker

Random House


It was that time of life: Talents were rising to the surface, weaknesses were beginning to show through, we were finding out what kind of people we would be. Some would turn out beautiful, some funny, some shy. Some would be smart, others smarter. The chubby ones would likely always be chubby. The beloved, I sensed, would be beloved for life. And I worried that loneliness might work that way, too. Maybe loneliness was imprinted in my genes, lying dormant for years but now coming into full bloom.

                       from  The Age of Miracles


Coming of age amid global catastrophe

We didn’t notice right away. We couldn’t feel it. We did not sense at first the extra time, bulging from the smooth edge of each day like a tumor blooming beneath skin…There was no footage to show on television, no burning buildings or broken bridges, no twisted metal or scorched earth, no houses sliding off slabs. No one was wounded. No one was dead. It was, at the beginning, a quite invisible catastrophe.

In Karen Thompson Walker’s first novel the rotation of the earth has suddenly begun to slow and the days are growing longer. The Age of Miracles is a mixing of genres, the coming-of-age novel with science fiction.

Eleven-year-old Julia watches as global catastrophe becomes the new normal. There is an initial panic when the news is announced. People jump in their cars and clog the freeways—“They scurried in every direction like small animals caught suddenly under a light. But, of course, there was nowhere on earth to go.”

The birds die first, affected by the changing gravity; soon some people begin to fall ill with “gravity sickness.” As the days grow longer, a teacher replaces 24 Hours with 25:37 above a world map in his classroom, but uses a Post-it note so it can be updated. Over the coming months as the earth continues its slowing, the days will eventually become 60 hours long.

Julia’s parents and teachers try to reassure the children—“but that was the thing: We kids were not as afraid as we should have been. We were too young to be scared, too immersed in our own small worlds, too convinced of our own permanence.”

And not only the kids. Most adults, too, adjust and carry on with their lives. They go to work, continue their little adulteries and other hobbies as if nothing major was happening. Facing the potential ending of life on earth, they continue to put out the garbage and recyclables.

Much of Julia’s life is focused on school and her first crush (“I had never spoken much to Seth Moreno, but I had perfected a way of watching him that didn’t look like I was watching.”), for she and her classmates are entering the “age of miracles”—puberty, and their concerns are primarily pubertal in nature (“That bra wasn’t supporting much. Michaela was as flat as I was. But she wore it anyway, a racy symbol of things to come.”)

Unfortunately, Walker provides us no scientific explanation to account for the earth’s slowing (My own theory is that it had something to do with the outcome of the 2012 U.S. Presidential election.)

The reader is left wondering at how ordinary catastrophe can become, and it can be reassuring to see how people adapt. Or maybe not reassuring.


This review first appeared in The Columbia River Reader (October 15-November 14, 2012.) Reprinted with permission.


David Mitchell

Random House

You & I, the moneyed, the privileged, the fortunate, shall not fare so badly in this world, provided our luck holds. What of it if our consciences itch? Why undermine the dominance of our race, our gunships, our heritage & our legacy? Why fight the natural (oh, weaselly word!) order of things?

Why? Because of this:--one fine day, a purely predatory world shall consume itself. Yes, the Devil shall take the hindmost until the foremost is the hindmost. In an individual, selfishness uglifies the soul; for the human species, selfishness is extinction.

                                   from  Cloud Atlas


Souls bumping into each other across time

Cloud Atlas is an impressive book that was made into an impressive film. Worthy companion pieces, each can stand alone, yet each enhances and magnifies its artistic counterpart. I finished the novel at 11:00 on a Saturday night and saw the film on Sunday, which immediately sent me back into the book.

In his 2004 novel, David Mitchell (The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, Black Swan Green) tells six different yet interconnected stories, mixing genres and styles as he does so. There is a 19th century journal of a passenger on a sailing ship; letters from a young composer working with a master; a modern day thriller about the nuclear industry; a comically outlandish narrative of being confined in a care institution; a science fiction tale about a humanoid “fabricant” discovering her humanity; and a post-apocalyptic fantasy written in a unique dialect (“Oh, bein’ young ain’t easy ‘cos ev’rythin’ you’re puzzlin’n’anxin’ you’re puzzlin’n’anxin’ it for the first time.”)

As Mitchell proceeds through these different stories, set in different time periods, we find connections between them that leave the reader with a sense of awe, as if we had turned over the fabric of time and can see the way the individual threads have been woven together.

Cloud Atlas, the film, is creatively faithful to the book. Lana and Andy Wachowski (The Matrix) adapted Mitchell’s novel and co-directed the film with Tom Tykwer (Run, Lola, Run.) The result has “Oscar” written all over it, in part because of the caliber of its actors (Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugo Weaving, Jim Broadbent, Jim Sturgess, Ben Wishaw, Susan Sarandon, Hugh Grant), but also because the Wachowskis stretch the film beyond its filmic conventions, just as Mitchell did with the novel.

One can see the Oscar nominations coming. Like their original Matrix, or Christopher Nolan’s more recent Inception, Cloud Atlas is a cinematic mind bender that will send viewers back a second and third time to parse and piece together its possible meanings and connections [Best Adapted Screenplay.]

The filmmakers decided to convey Mitchell’s idea of eternal recurrence and interconnectedness by having each actor assume a number of different roles, “playing souls, not characters,” explained Tykwer. Mitchell, who appears briefly in the film, has written, “each role (is) a sort of way station on that soul’s karmic journey.” It is a bit of a stretch to see lovable Tom Hanks playing a London thug; but it’s a fun stretch. It is also refreshing to see Hugh Grant playing a role other than Hugh Grant.

Part of the film’s enjoyment is trying to identify the actor behind the make-up. The actors not only play different roles, but even different genders and races—Viewers will not be surprised to learn that Halle Berry is also stunningly beautiful as a white woman [Best Make Up.]

The filmmakers chose to forgo the novel’s narrative structure of telling the stories sequentially, and instead intermixed them, which gives a dizzying sense that all these stories—in the past, the present, and the future—are occurring simultaneously [Best editing.]

And as for the acting awards, it’s tantalizing to think that Cloud Atlas could make Academy Award history if, say, Tom Hanks receives the Oscars for Best Actor and for Best Supporting Actor…in the same film.

Mitchell is a daring writer and the Wachowskis are daring filmmakers. Here is a book and film that are worthy of each other, both striking the mystic chords of our collective memory.


This review first appeared in The Columbia River Reader (November 15-December 14, 2012.) Reprinted with permission.


Robert Harris

Alfred A. Knopf 

A trillion dollars of assets was controlled from Geneva … Dollars, euros, francs—these were the units in which [Hoffmann] measured the success or failure of his experiment, just as at CERN he had used teraelectronvolts, nanoseconds and microjules. However, there was one great difference between the two, he was obliged to concede; a problem he had never fully confronted or solved. You couldn’t buy anything with a nanosecond or microjule, whereas money was a sort of toxic by-product of his research. Sometimes he felt it was poisoning him inch by inch, just like Marie Curie had been killed by radiation.

                           from  The Fear Index


Be afraid. Be very afraid.

“Our conclusion is that fear is driving the world as never before,” Dr. Alexander Hoffmann tells his investors. A brilliant physicist who formerly worked for CERN (the European nuclear research agency in Switzerland), Hoffmann has learned to turn fear into money.

He did this did this by creating VIXAL-4, “an autonomous machine-learning algorithm”; more specifically, it is a cyber program that monitors the level of fear on the Internet and then makes lightning–speed hedge fund transactions based on its “fear index.” A small mid-European airline’s plane crashes and VIXAL-4 has traded its stock before the fireball is even extinguished.

Robert Harris, the author of a number of smart political and historical thrillers (The Ghost, Fatherland, Enigma, Pompeii) has written a novel that is as timely and prescient as tomorrow’s news.

The reader becomes immersed in the world of high finance and hedge fund trading where people talk blithely in terms of billions, even trillions of dollars (millions is just so yesterday.)

Yet, although having accumulated a fortune using his algorithm, Hoffmann himself cares little for money and openly despises his billionaire clients, the very rich who want to become even richer yet whine about the tax rates in Europe. It is his research into Autonomous Machine Reasoning (also called Artificial Intelligence) that is his passion.

Then, just as Hoffmann Investment Technologies is set to become the largest algorithmic hedge fund in the world, something begins to go awry. Instructions, invitations and expensive orders are sent from his email address that Hoffmann never sent. Or did he? We learn that he has a past history of mental instability.

He believes that the firm’s ultra-tech security system has been hacked into, and whoever is doing it is trying to sabotage his company, his career, and his marriage. Oh, yes—and they may also be causing a collapse of the global economy.

Deserving his bestseller status, Harris writes in a taut, fast-paced style that also presents ideas and issues that will cause the reader to think about the real-world implications of what he or she is reading.

The Fear Index is a thriller for thinking adults. And if you manage a stock portfolio, you may choose to sleep with the lights on after reading this book.


This review first appeared in The Columbia River Reader (May 15-June 14, 2012.) Reprinted with permission.


Daniel James Brown



He came to understand how those almost mystical bonds of trust and affection, if nurtured correctly, might lift a crew above the ordinary sphere, transport it to a place where nine boys somehow became one thing—a thing that could not quite be defined, a thing that was so in tune with water and the earth and the sky above that, as they rowed, effort was replaced by ecstasy. It was a rare thing, a sacred thing…

         from  The Boys in the Boat


Triumph of the spirit, rowing

If you liked the film, Chariots of Fire, you’re going to love The Boys in the Boat, Daniel James Brown’s riveting account of the U.S. rowing team who beat the German and Italian teams at Hitler’s 1936 Berlin Olympics. Like fellow Seattle writer Erik Larson, Brown writes history as if it were a novel.

This saga is about nine youth from the University of Washington—“they were farm boys or lumberjacks or fishermen, the products of foggy coastal villages, damp dairy farms, and smoky lumber towns all over the state.”

They had come of age amid a crippling worldwide depression and Brown tells their stories, especially that of Joe Rantz, who Brown met as Rantz was dying 70 years after that moment in Berlin.

All the boys were poor, but Joe had had a particularly hardscrabble life. His mother died when he was four. Unfortunately, his stepmother didn’t like him, so Joe was sent to live by himself in their mining town’s one-room schoolhouse. He was ten years old.

Later, his father moved the family to Sequim and tried farming. Relations didn’t improve between Joe and his stepmother, and Joe returned home from school one day to find the family car packed with all their belongings. His father explained they were moving to California to find work; Joe would have to remain behind by himself. He was fifteen. It is hard to read these accounts and wonder at how callous parents could be, and certainly makes a strong case for CPS.

If Joe is the determined, self-reliant heart of the book, its spiritual center is George Pocock, who handcrafted the sleek 64-foot boats (“shells”) and became Joe’s mentor. He considered rowing less a sport than an art, “a symphony of motion. And when you’re rowing well, why it’s nearing perfection. And when you near perfection, you’re touching the Divine.”

The Washington underdogs began to take on the eastern elite schools who considered rowing to be their sport, setting up “a clash of eastern privilege and prestige on the one hand and western sincerity and brawn on the other. In financial terms, it was pretty starkly going to be a clash of old money versus no money at all.”

In the prologue, Brown relates how, when interviewing Joe Rantz at the end of his life, the only times the old man became emotional and would weep was when he talked about “the boat.” We understand. It had been the shining and defining moment of his life.


This review first appeared in The Columbia River Reader (October 15-November 14, 2013.) Reprinted with permission.


Max Barry

The Penguin Press

…Like the gunmen who went around assassinating people with military-issue sniper rifles in 2003. Like the anthrax in the mall in 2006. For a few weeks everyone freaks out, we need more security, we need scanners, we need to take people’s photograph when they enter a government building. Then a month later everyone’s calmed down and yet we still get these incredibly intrusive new processes and technologies, which would have made zero difference to the incident that inspired them. This isn’t an accident; this happens because to people at the top, the scariest thing is how many people there are below. They need to watch us. They need to monitor what we’re thinking. It’s the only thing between them and a guillotine. Every time something like this happens, anytime there’s death and fear and people demanding action, to them that’s an opportunity.                                             

                              From Lexicon


Perhaps some poetry with your paranoia?

Wil Parke has been abducted for some important information that he possesses, though he has no idea what it is. He and his abductors are being pursued by a vast and powerful organization that also wants him and this knowledge. Along with the reader, Wil tries to make some sense of all this: What is this information that he supposedly possesses? Why can’t he remember it? Who are his abductors—and, by the way, are they the good guys or the bad guys?


Sixteen-year old Emily Ruff is a youth living by her exceptionally sharp wits on the streets of San Francisco. Smart, independent and gutsy, Emily is recruited to attend a school for exceptional kids, but a school like none other, where the students are trained to control other people’s minds through the skillful application of words. Those who oversee the school are called Poets, and they and the instructors have adopted names like Yeats, Brontë, and Eliot.

Emily is at first intrigued by this school and enjoys its benefits, and she excels at the curriculum; but being a natural rebel, she begins to chafe at the rules and limitations imposed on the students. Eventually, she is expelled…with some dangerous skills.

The narrative seesaws between these two seemingly unrelated stories, going down parallel tracks, until they suddenly converge.

Lexicon is being touted as a “cerebral thriller”, and it certainly has all the requisite thrills, chills and implausible situations of the thriller genre.

The dialogue is crisp and fast-moving:

“Persuade them to stop chasing us…Offer them something. Make a deal. Give them something they want.”

“But what they want is you.”

“Something else.”

This is one of those books whose reading induces paranoia and makes you regret ever having given out your social security number and mother’s maiden name. Or even having a social security number.

We’re talking mind control here, far more sophisticated than Orwell ever imagined in 1984, with its clunky totalitarian attempts at suppressing individual thoughts and desires. But then we have gone far beyond 1984 in so many ways.

The message we are left with is that words are powerful. Words are magical. Words can be dangerous. But then, we already knew that.


This review first appeared in The Columbia River Reader (August 15-September 14, 2013.) Reprinted with permission.