Wednesday, January 6, 2016


I spent a number of days trying to decide if I could write a fair, impartial review of this book. The answer is, “No.” However, I decided to put down my thoughts in the hopes that they might help other readers decide if this is a book for them or not.

In short, this book is the telling, through multiple first person narrators, of a 1976 attempt on the life of reggae singer Bob Marley. The novel takes readers into the sordid underbelly of Jamaica during this and to a lesser extent the ensuing two decades, using as narrators such diverse characters as gang members, drug dealers, CIA operatives, reporters, and occasionally even a ghost. Central to the plot is the political climate of Jamaica at the time and its position, similar to Cuba, in a tug of war between Communist and Democratic ideologues. The final quarter of the book moves some of the plot beyond Jamaica to New York.

The print version of the book, for those parts narrated by Jamaican characters (the majority of the novel), is written in very dense dialect and a lot of patois. I chose to listen to the audio version, which I highly recommend for its assistance in easing the reader into what is, for most of us, a very foreign mode of speech. Normally, I listen to audios faster than normal—either 1.25 or 1.5. This one needed to go at normal speed in order for me to clearly comprehend what was being said. My one complaint with the audio is that the book has a huge cast of characters—a four page list in the print version—and not every narrator said who they were at the beginning of their chapter. Not all the voices where easily distinguishable from each other, so it wasn’t always clear. Every one of the narrators was, to me, outstanding, and it is very likely that this narration will rank as my number one audio book of 2016. That said, I have read complaints from native Jamaican reviewers that the accents were not at all authentic and to them, ridiculous.

Instead of my usual wordy paragraph review format, I am going to use bullet points to offset various elements of the novel to aid readers in deciding if this is a book that is right for you:
—multiple first person narrators, alternating chapters
—variety of styles, including stream of conscious
—very original in content, style, and sheer fearlessness
—graphically violent (murder, rape, you name it—it’s probably in there)
—very profane language throughout
—multiple plot threads, doled out to the reader bit by bit, gradually taking shape into a coherent story; requires patience on the part of the reader
—does not require prior knowledge of the time or place to follow the novel (other than realizing that “the singer” is Bob Marley; I don’t think he is ever mentioned by name)
—a bit lengthy (687 pages in print or 26 hours on audio)

So why, if I so clearly enjoyed the audio did I not rate the book higher? It was a purely personal thing. If I were rating the book on originality and craftsmanship, it would get, hands-down, five stars. However, five stars for me means I loved the book and would recommend it for everyone. Four stars means that I really enjoyed it but it had a few issues and might not be for everyone. Three stars means it was an interesting experimental read or it was a fluffy but well-written book. This book falls squarely into the “interesting experimental read” category. I greatly admired the overall structure of the book, and even more importantly for me, Marlon James brilliantly captured his characters—they vibrate with life, bringing me from my peaceful Alaska into their turbulent world. Unfortunately, FOR ME, the book contained far too graphic violence and far, far, far too much obscene language for me to give it the four or five stars that would lead my readers to believe that I give it a blanket endorsement for all readers. This is a very individual, subjective opinion. Many readers are not bothered by violence and profanity. If that is the case for you, and you enjoy a very original and well-crafted novel, this might very well be a five star read for you. Certainly the Man Booker Prize judges felt that way. They awarded it their prize for 2015.

Friday, January 1, 2016


To say that 2015 was an odd reading year for me would be an understatement of mammoth proportions. That is, in some ways, very good but in other ways nothing to blog about. But that is why I keep the stats and the lists—it is fun and enlightening to look back at the end of the year and ponder how my leisure time was spent. It also gives me a chance to list for all of you my annual Top Ten.

#1 in Nonfiction (2015)
Unfortunately, as with 2014, 2015 stats are not accurate, as I went through a very extended time in the middle of the year where I didn’t accurately keep track of my reads. That being what it is, here are 2015’s numbers to the best of my record keeping.

Using the number of books I actually annotated, I read 94 titles this year, 72 fiction and 22 nonfiction. Most years, somewhere between a third and half of my reads are nonfiction, so I read less in the realm of reality this year. My guess is I read about 30 books that did not get added to my list, so this year’s total of somewhere in the neighborhood of 125 books is pretty insane. Why so many? I have a theory. In December of 2014, my sixteen-year-old daughter passed away, and I went into a bit of a reading slump. Instead of my usual fare of literary fiction and pretty solid nonfiction, I read a ton of chick lit, and it is far easier to knock out one of those books in a day or two than it is for my usual reading material.

#1 in Fiction (2015)
2015 was also unusual in its very low number of pages read—9,086 in 27 print books—and very high number of hours—764 in 67 audiobooks. Since my patterns of when I read and listened remained the same, I really have no theories as to why. Challenges are another area in which 2015 was abnormal. While it is not unusual for me not to complete challenges, most years I come close; not so in 2015. I set very ambitious challenges hoping that it would give me something to focus on as I grieved the loss of my girl. The reality was that because I both read outside my usual genre and did not maintain my record keeping, my performance in my challenges was pretty abysmal.

Despite a lot of three star reads, I did manage to put together a pretty strong group of books for my annual Top Ten. Remember, these are books I read in 2015, not books published in that year. If a review was done for the book, you can click on the title to be linked to it.:


Bohemian Gospel by Dana Chamblee Carpenter
Doc: A Novel by Maria Doria Russell
The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins


In the Kingdom of Ice by Hampton Sides
Wide-Open World by John Marshall
The Hot Zone by Richard Preston
Poisons by Peter MacInnis

In as few words as possible, here is why they made the cut:

Fiction (five stars):

Bohemian Gospel: Strongest novel I have read in forever; originality; deep characters; great setting; tight plotting

The Supremes at Earl’s All-You-Can-Eat: Dead people, live people, all kinds of crazy people living life in small town America; what more could you ask for?

Doc: A Novel: great package of plot and setting, but it was absolutely the characters that brought this one to life; cannot believe it took me so long to read it!

The Bonfire of the Vanities: Wonderful look at human nature and how society acts upon people and people upon it; no, it won’t be your easiest read of the year, but it will be one of the ones that will stick with you the longest

Fiction (four and 1/2 stars):

All the Light We Cannot See: This book just sings. Wonderful writing spinning an unforgettable tale of merging plot lines

The Girl on the Train: I don’t read very many suspense novels, but so glad I grabbed this one, as the plot kept surprising me right to the end (most don’t).

Nonfiction (five stars):

In the Kingdom of Ice: My favorite narrative nonfiction writer. Not as good as Ghost Soldiers, but still has characters you tuck away in your heart and a fascinating tale.

Nonfiction (four and 1/2 stars):

Wide-Open World: Great nonfiction escapism! The author’s openness and honesty make this far more than a travel memoir.

The Hot Zone: Yipes! Love Preston! If you want a true-life thriller, this is it!

Poisons: This book is an editorial mess, jumping from topic to topic from one paragraph to the next, but the content is so unfailingly fascinating that you happily roll with it! Even when it delves into chemistry, it is perfectly lucid.

And the sad disappointment:

A common question among readers is always what book was your biggest disappointment, the book that just didn’t live up to the hype. For me that book was Kristin Hannah’s much lauded The Nightingale. The book did squeeze three stars out of me, despite my inclination to give it two, because I liked the two main characters and the premise was good. Unfortunately, the book was a hot mess in two critical ways: the writing mechanics were awful and nobody should be writing historical fiction if they are so utterly incompetent with regards to historical research. What problem did I have with the mechanics? This novel was literally a textbook case of telling not showing. I actually used passages from it in our homeschool—as examples of what not to do—and my kids did her rewrites for her. As far as historical accuracy? Let’s just say it got to be a bit of a hobby picking out all the anachronisms that Ms. Hannah (or her editor) ought to have caught. I know many people loved the novel, but it was a massive miss for me.

I wish all of you happy reading in 2016. Perhaps we will experience a few of the same books and exchange a thought or two in the year to come. As an avid reader, nothing beats thinking through the upcoming months and wondering what bits of knowledge and enjoyment will leap from the pages into my memory and my heart.