Leonardo may well have been the greatest genius in history and certainly had the most inquisitive mind, the result being the creation of some of the greatest works of art known. Using the voluminous journals which he kept as a primary source, Walter Isaacson presents an engrossing portrait of the scientist, inventor, artist, supreme polymath who was also very human and enthralled with nature and the condition of life which he embraced so deeply. After reading this work, a person can easily understand what forces helped create the eternal greatness of works such as the Mona Lisa.
The largest detonation of high explosives before the atomic bomb occurred in Halifax, Nova Scotia in 1917 with devastation that presaged the nuclear age. Applying extensive research the author meticulously explains the munition ship collision that precipitated the explosion and gives a human touch to the horror, heroism and redemption that all came from that horrific moment. All of this is set perfectly against the background of World War I, which indirectly caused the cataclysmic event and was the seminal event of the 20th century.
Adams and Jefferson had an almost lifelong but also combative and tenuous friendship. The differing philosophies of the two statesmen presaged the eventual split which ravaged the United States and created a divisive split which remains to this day. The development of their conflict, which really started during the Continental Congress, is explicated lucidly as is their eventual split and the eventual reconciliation which resulted in their amazing correspondence which only ended on the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence when they died on the same day. It is a study that is relevant not only to American history but also to present society.
A new biography of Lenin presents a more human portrait of the Russian revolutionary whose philosophy and actions determined so much of the direction of the 20th century. The Lenin who emerges is a more complex individual than his mythical being and his personal relationships, especially with Inessa Armond, are brought out like never before. Having access to a treasure trove of correspondence the author gives us the person behind the fierce personality and, as a bonus, gives a much more nuanced view of his wife, Nadezhda Krupskaya, who did so much to support the future dictator.
The definitive biography of the Russian dictator continues with a powerful second volume focusing on his actions during the Great Terror and the rising threat of Nazi Germany. As Stalin's paranoia increased, he destroyed virtually every individual and institution close to him while also desperately maneuvering to avoid the menace of Hitler. This fascinating study not only portrays the corruption of absolute power but also gives an incisive background to the personalities and politics that led to the devastation of Europe in World War II.
A savage country indeed, where violence, both man-made and natural, is pervasive and threatens to soon ravage a pristine landscape. Robert Olmstead describes this world with a terrible beauty as a widow and her mysterious brother-in-law go on a buffalo hunt to recoup the family fortune in 1873 Kansas. The stunning scenery and constant and casual brutality are brilliantly evoked by the author who has given us a novel strongly reminiscent of John Willams' great Butcher's Crossing.
The United States might well not exist, or at least be in a different form, if not for the achievements of Ulysses Grant yet history has minimized his huge contributions. That error is rectified in Ron Chernow's towering biography of the general and president who did so much to win the Civil War for the Union and then proved to be the staunchest advocate of freed slaves rights during Reconstruction. A man of few words, Grant hid an inquiring, incisive mind behind his taciturn exterior and proved to have far greater depths than appeared as he especially showed in his monumental memoir, still the best ever penned by a chief executive in this country. An exceptional man is brought to life in an exceptional work by an author who may be today's best biographer.
Ghost, both literal and figurative, inhabit the world of a poor African-American family as Jesmyn Ward returns to the rural setting of Bois Sauvage. Leonie and her children embark on a tension filled road as she goes to retrieve her husband from prison but the sins of the recent and ancient past will continue to catch all of the characters in a web where race and class dictate much of fate. History hangs heavy as each individual tries to find a way to freedom to safety, to home. Just as with Salvage the Bones, Ward brings intense power to a story of the eternal American dilemma.
Salman Rushdie is an author of many exceptional gifts but the greatest may be that he is an absolutely superb storyteller, possibly the best we have today. But his talent certainly does not stop there as he combines his entertaining tales with deft characterization and pungent, pointed observations on the world and society. His account of the Golden family, their mysteries and trials, set in an enclave of New York provides ample opportunity for him to display all of his artistic legerdemain while enthralling the reader with another extraordinary novel.
Denise Kiernan transports the reader to another age through the story of Biltmore, itself an anachronism and teh lone standing reminder of the notorious Gilded Age. But the story of Biltmore is more than just the legendary wealth of the Vanderbilts which enabled its construction. It is also a tale of service, accepted responsibility, development of environmentalism and a changing society which transformed the roles of many citizens and classes. The titanic house outside Asheville is now a tourist attraction but also a viable economic entity in the community, having been transformed as much as the world it still inhabits.
There are probably not enough superlatives to describe this intricate and involved debut novel. Probing deeply into the mysteries of family, relationships and the creative process, the author displays keen powers of observation and a deft touch using the difficult device of interior stories to portray her characters and subjects. One can only imagine that same meticulous care shown by Joan Ashby in her work is duplicated by Cherise Wolas. This work is so distinctive her only problem will be finding something as striking as an encore.
If the planet suffered a catastrophic event would humans discover their better side during the struggle to survive or would all the old superstitions, biases and prejudices still come to the fore? Deon Meyer probes that question and more in his apocalyptic novel as a group of people in South Africa attempt to build a new society only to discover the old factionalism once again rears its head. The fast paced story is filled with intrigue and mystery while also serving as a serious study of what can be done by humanity on the edge of extinction. And readers will also be pleased by the fact that their is definitely an opening for a sequel.
Thomas Mullen continues his chronicle of post world War II Atlanta as told through the trials and tribulations of its first black police officers. As the burgeoning city encounters a population explosion, officers Boggs and Smith are drawn into the battles that result as whites attempt to keep their neighborhoods segregated. Mullen uses the crime novel to paint a pointed portrait of a society trying to cling to its outdated philosophy as it contends with a slowly rising civil rights movement while at the same time delineating the difficulties that are attendant to his characters' personal lives.
Each of the Ribkins has one particular talent, some extremely unique and often, at first glance, seemingly of little use. But their greatest talent may be in knowing the value of family and the support necessary for that group to survive. As Johnny Ribkins and his niece Eloise go on a peripatetic trip through Florida the reader is taken on a journey through the problems of race, class and identity in our society while family uses its considerable skills to ward off pursuers and attain security. This is a novel that is an absolute delight yet has a serious undercurrent that will provoke thought and contemplation while remaining a great entertainment.
The fear and paranoia of the Cold War period are brought out forcefully in this tense, taut novel set in the post-Stalinist Soviet Union. An American defector brings,his brother to the country, ostensibly to publish his memoirs, But that is just a cover for a much more elaborate and the levels of deception grow incrementally. It is a story of espionage, murder and deceit and in the end the greatest deception may be that which people perform upon themselves because of their beliefs.
For someone who approaches such serious scientific and technological subjects, Neal Stephenson can be outrageously funny. Combine that with Nicole Galland's story telling ability and you have a rollicking roller coaster of a novel. The authors mix together magic, witchcraft, time travel, science and historical figures, both real and imagined, all the while delightfully skewering bumbling bureaucrats, pretentious academics, a rigid military and other bastions of the establishment to produce a work that is both thought provoking and totally entertaining.
An author who is legendary for her spare and concise prose would seem to be the ideal candidate to write short stories and Elizabeth Strout proves that contention in a virtuoso collection that showcases all of her considerable ability. Using many of the same characters and locations from My Name is Lucy Barton she adroitly portrays all of the conflicts and triumphs that occur in daily existence while probing the incredibly complex depths of each life. What is classified as normal being becomes high art under her controlled, probing and exquisite prose.
Winston Churchill and George Orwell never met but the two shared a role as bastions of defense of individual liberty during the tumultuous middle decades of the 20th century. Both nearly died during the 1930s but survived to go through the cauldron of World War II and its aftermath to become the spokespersons against tyranny, whether the source was from the right or left. Ricks artfully details how the two came to take their stance and delineates the similarities in the their lives that led them to become icons of the cause of freedom.
Virtually nothing is as it seems in this stylish novel of two women whose lives become increasingly intertwined. Lady Daniels and her nanny, S, develop a bond that has multiple layers filled with deception and one that corrupts both. What on the surface appears to be a novel of family slowly builds suspense and becomes something entirely different. Filled with a pungent, dark humor the reader is drawn inexorably into this tale of people whose lives are totally at variance with their surface appearance.
The immigrant experience is inherent to the history of almost all Americans, whether their ancestors arrived on the Mayflower, a jet or train or simply drove or walked across a border. Lisa Ko examines that shared phenomenon through the eyes of Peilan and Deming, a Chinese mother and son who are caught up in the machinations of an implacable system that can sunder families and destroy individual and cultural identities. Readers who examine their own family histories will easily be able to identify with the trials and tribulations the two have to endure as they seek a place for themselves in an alien world.
Johnny, we hardly knew ye. That is so true of John Kennedy, who has become more myth than substance in many cases, which is a shame because the reality is so much more interesting. In a journalistic and historical tour de force the authors delineate the intensity, focus and highly structured organization that implemented the tactics and strategy that brought him the 1960 Presidential nomination. It was a campaign that forever changed American politics and its relevance carries through to the present.
Greg Iles continues the sage begun in Natchez Burning and the pace is just as relentless and exciting. He is a master of suspense and action and keeps the reader riveted while juggling his separate story lines. And followers of the series should be warned the author throws in at least two shocking events that never would have been expected and will only whet the appetite for his third and concluding volume next year.
It is difficult to conceive of a weak FBI but such was the case in the early days of the bureau. Things began to radically change in the early 1920's when a series of brutal murders were carried out against members of the Osage tribe in Oklahoma, who controlled enormous wealth in oil rights. Because of the legal status of the tribe, J. Edgar Hoover and his bureau were able to enter the case since it was also a federal crime. What was uncovered was a vast conspiracy that opened the door for the FBI to expand its powers. Grann's reporting is exhaustive and, amazingly, he even exposes further reaches of the conspiracy that the FBI missed. A mesmerizing and thrilling read of a crucial period in history.
Greg Iles completes his massive trilogy with the story centered around a volatile trial in which the participants must confront a past that is always present and the conundrum of racial relations in America. As usual, his action sequences are adrenalin fueled and the plot twists ingenious and full of surprises that will keep the reader on edge right up to the explosive finale.
When the Nazi war machine engulfed continental Europe the various governments in exile found refuge in England, joining with the British to continue the fight against Hitler. Lynne Olson brings to life a forerunner of the United Nations, complete with alliances and antagonisms as the diverse groups tried to find a common ground while maintaining their opposition and sovereignty. The contributions of the exiles to the war effort have often been overlooked during England's time of standing alone but this work gives them their long overdue credit.
Seth and Carter are young music producers but when they create a blues song that purports to be an early, lost recording, they open themselves to a world of mystery and violence. As two generations of obsessed collectors make their way to Mississippi they enter a phantasmagorical realm where history if ever present and ready to mete out punishment for the sins of the past. Written in prose that brings the music alive, the author has created a discourse on cultural appropriation that is both pointed and disquieting while also absorbing the reader.
A nation made up of immigrants has another brilliant voice to delineate the experience that has been common and yet unique to so many of its inhabitants and their ancestors. Nguyen artfully depicts the hopes, fears, confusion and alienation of people adjusting to a new society while desperately trying to hold on to the old and familiar. These stories paint a portrait of a society that changes its new arrivals yet changes itself because of the influence of the new citizens.
One of the most confounding and controversial Presidents is brought to life in an incisive biography that brings to life a man who did much to set the course for the United States in the second half of the 20th century. Nixon's many foibles and phobias are brought to light, along with his strong points, some of which also helped to contribute to his historic downfall. His career is still relevant as many of Nixon's policies, tactics and philosophies are applied in today's political world and often a direct result of his actions. To understand Richard Nixon is to gain an insight to our present society.
Starting with one of the greatest first lines you will ever read, this high octane novel immediately hits high gear and never stops accelerating straight through to its explosive conclusion. The perverse, irrational world of warfare and the skewed morality of its instigators and participants is brought out forcefully in this story of three distinctly different people whose lives intersect during the Iraq conflict. Just as The Things They Carried became the definitive novel of the Vietnam war, so may Spoils take a similar place for the second Gulf War.