From a random review:

Get new posts by email:

About the blogger:
Debra Hamel is the author of a number of books about ancient Greece. She writes and blogs from her subterranean lair in North Haven, CT. Read more.

Note: As an Amazon associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.

Navigate the site:
Click here for a complete list of books reviewed or select below:
Search the site:
The ratings:
5 stars  excellent
4 stars  very good
3 stars  good
2 stars  fair
1 stars  poor

Blog stats:

Books by Debra Hamel:

By Debra Hamel

Kindle | paperback (US)
Kindle | paperback (UK)

By Debra Hamel

Kindle | paperback (US)
Kindle | paperback (UK)

By Debra Hamel

paperback | Kindle | hardcover (US)
paperback | hardcover (UK)

By Debra Hamel

Kindle | paperback (US)
Kindle | paperback (UK)

By Debra Hamel

paperback | hardcover (US)
paperback | hardcover (UK)

By Debra Hamel

Kindle (US) | Kindle (UK)

By Debra Hamel

Kindle (US) | Kindle (UK)

By Debra Hamel

Kindle | paperback (US)
Kindle | paperback (UK)

By Debra Hamel

Kindle (US) | Kindle (UK) by Debra Hamel is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution - Noncommercial - No Derivative Works 3.0 License.

Click here for a complete list of books reviewed.

Book Notices | Rebel with a Clause by Ellen Jovin

Ellen Jovin, Rebel with a Clause


Rebel with a Clause is a sort of grammar travelogue. Since 2018, Ellen Jovin has been setting up a folding table in public with a "Grammar Table" sign and answering any grammar-related questions that passersby happen to have. She started in New York, where she lives, but at time of writing, she and her husband (who films the interactions at the table for a Grammar Table documentary!) had hit 47 states. This book is an account of her conversations with people from all over, organized by topic rather than geography. Chapters include, for example, discussions of the Oxford comma (of course; I don't really understand the world's obsession with this one piece of punctuation); affect vs. effect and lay vs lie (see below); its and it's and your and you're and their and they're and so on. After each chapter, Jovin includes a quizlet so readers can test their skills.

I love grammar, but this book wasn't really about the grammar for me. It's more about the author's personality. Jovin is an immediately likable narrator who, with her friendly vibe, managed to coax a lot of people nationwide into talking about their grammar-related issues. She is far from a grammar scold, and in fact admits to some grammatical laxity that would draw ire from some, e.g., her lack of concern about the distinction between “farther” and “further.” (This is the sort of thing that may have earned her the term "rebel" in the title.) Anybody who likes grammar will enjoy the conversations in this book. If you're a grammar expert, you're unlikely to learn anything new, but I think you'll enjoy the experience anyway.

Two notes:

(1) This is the perfect place for me to promote the rule of thumb I propose for those who can't remember the difference between "lay" and "lie." It is this: If you're in doubt, if you're questioning which word to use, you almost certainly want "lie." Most people (especially those who are not bricklayers and are not involved with chicken farming) can get away with never saying "lay." Why?

"Lay" is one of two things. (a) It can be a transitive verb (one that takes an object), as in "laying brick" or "laying eggs" or "laying a book on a table." But how often do you say any of these things? Chances are, if you want to say that you put a book on a table, you wouldn't say "lay," you'd say "put." And I think you're unlikely to be confused when you're talking about bricks or eggs. (b) The second possibility is the one that trips people up. "Lay" is also the past tense of "lie." So, you might say, "I am lying down right now." "I will lie down soon." "You should lie down." "Lie down!" (Not "lay"  or "laying" in any of those cases!) But, if you're talking about the past tense, you'd say, "Yesterday I lay down." If that explanation is enough to make you remember the distinction, great, but if not, just don't use "lay"! Because you can get away with saying, "Yesterday I was lying down." So I repeat, if you're wondering which to use, you almost certainly want "lie" (or you can get away with using "lying").

(2) In her introduction, Jovin notes that one of the three states she and her husband did not set up shop in was Connecticut—despite its proximity to New York. They did visit Connecticut, but rather than doling out grammar advice, they got pizza. This is perfectly reasonable behavior, even expected. But as a native of New Haven, I'm sure I join a chorus of other readers from the area in my need to know, where did they get their pizza from?

Book Notices | The Sentence is Death by Anthony Horowitz

Anthony Horowitz, The Sentence is Death


This is the second installment in Anthony Horowitz’s delightful series of literary whodunits. The author (who is real) blends reality and fiction by injecting himself into the story as a Watson-like character, the somewhat bumbling sidekick of a brilliant detective, disgraced former policeman Daniel Hawthorne (who is fictional). Together, they investigate unusual crimes, with Horowitz taking notes and working on the very book that we're reading. This time around, the crime that warrants chronicling is the murder by wine bottle of a prominent divorce attorney. The mystery is compelling, but it's the relationship between Hawthorne and Horowitz that is most appealing. It’s great to watch as the author slowly uncovers more personal information about his enigmatic and cantankerous partner. This series is a lot of fun. 

Book Notices | Betrayal by Tim Tigner

Tim Tigner, Betrayal


In Tim Tigner's early stand-alone novel Betrayal, twin siblings Ody and Cassi Carr—an FBI agent and profiler, respectively—run afoul of a political plot aimed at getting Cassi's soon-to-be ex into the White House. The book is fast-paced and readable, but it falls short of being riveting or memorable. The pace often feels rushed, and I never felt any attachment to the characters. It's hard to believe that Cassi, who is so impressive in other areas, would ever have fallen for the bad guy and not been able to see through him. And Ody doesn't make the best decisions in the story either. So, it's an okay read if you've got some time to kill, but Tigner went on to write better books.

Book Notices | The Word is Murder by Anthony Horowitz

Anthony Horowitz, The Word is Murder


Anthony Horowitz injects himself into the story in this first book in his Hawthorne and Horowitz series, playing the John Watson figure to an enigmatic ex-policeman known mostly by his last name. A particularly intriguing case—the murder of a popular actor's mother on the day she plans her own funeral—prompts Hawthorne to propose the partnership, and after some initial reluctance, Horowitz signs on. So Horowitz is the real-life author writing about his fictional experience tailing the fictional detective while he solves a fictional crime. I write those adjectives with the certainty of someone who's Googled to find out exactly where the many real-life details in this book give way to fiction. The blend is exquisite. So I really enjoyed that playfulness—the melding of reality and fiction—and I like the first-person narrative in which Horowitz brings us along not only while he shadows Hawthorne but also while he tries to figure out how to approach writing this kind of story in the first place. It's quite a fun read, and there are (to date) three more books in the series waiting to be enjoyed! Hopefully they'll keep coming. (In closing, I must say that I love the cover art for these books. Also, in my head, Hawthorne was played by actor Bruce Weitz.)

Book Notices | A Column of Fire by Ken Follett

Ken Follett, A Column of Fire


A Column of Fire is the third installment in Ken Follett's Kingsbridge series.* Like its predecessors, it's a big, sprawling read, centered loosely around the fictional English town of Kingsbridge. This novel picks up the story of the city's inhabitants hundreds of years after the events of Follett's World Without End. We're now in the 16th and early 17th centuries, when Europe is riven by religious conflict between Catholics and Protestants. The main protagonist, Kingsbridge native Ned Willard, spends his life in the service of Queen Elizabeth helping to root out extremist plots, all the while hoping for a world free of religious division. He's a good guy who's thwarted throughout his life by, among others, the brother of his (Catholic) childhood sweetheart. If you're familiar with the author's books, you won't be surprised by anything here—the huge cast of characters and clearly delineated good guys and bad guys; the stories of characters it's hard not to root for or against woven around real historical events; and, always, the sheer readability of it all, even at 900-plus pages.

*A prequel to the series published in 2020—The Evening and the Morning—complicates things: A Column of Fire was the third book published (in 2017) in the original trilogy of Kingsbridge books, which includes Pillars of the Earth (1989) and World Without End (2007).

Book Notices | The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins / Fifteen Minutes to Live by Phoef Sutton / The Forgotten Affairs of Youth by Alexander McCall Smith

Paula Hawkins, The Girl on the Train


The girl on the train is Rachel, who watches strangers from her seat during her morning commute—one particular couple, whom she embues with personalities and a backstory. As the story unfolds, we learn why Rachel is interested in this couple, how their lives overlap with hers, and we watch as she steps into their lives after seeing something disturbing from the train. The story is told primarily from the perspectives of Rachel and this woman she watches, "Jess" (although there is a third narrator as well, whose identity I won't reveal because it will give something away). Both women are broken when we meet them, and in Rachel's case, we don't know how much of what she tells us can be believed. Nor does she. So it's an interesting read. The only thing that gave me problems was kind of technical. The chapters are dated, and one woman's storyline takes place before the other's. It's not super complicated, but the prominence of the dates made them seem important, and on my Kindle I couldn't quickly flip around to see what the last date was. It was just an unnecessary irritation that took me out of the story. If the dates had been appended to the chapter titles in the table of contents, I think that would have improved my experience significantly.

Phoef Sutton, Fifteen Minutes to Live


The conceit of the book is interesting: Moved back into his parents' house after their deaths, Carl is surprised when his old girlfriend shows up out of the blue, throwing pebbles at his window like she used to in high school. Turns out, she does a lot of things like she did back in school. Carl has to figure out what the mystery behind her bizarre behavior is, and that leads to him uncovering big secrets. A lot happens in his life in a short period of time, and a lot happens in the book in a relatively small number of pages. The book is readable, it keeps you turning the pages, but it also felt rather rushed. An okay but ultimately forgettable story.

Alexander McCall Smith, The Forgotten Affairs of Youth


This eighth book in the author's Isabel Dalhousie series brings a familiar mix of philosophy, music, and meddling. Stuff happens as the characters' lives unfold unhurriedly: Isabel helps a new acquaintance who's looking for her roots in Scotland. Professor Lettuce rears his leafy head. Cat has a new employee. Charlie eats olives. Jamie is handsome and somehow impervious to his effect on women. And so on. This time around, in addition to being annoyed at how little parenting Isabel seems to need to do, I'm irritated by Grace, Isabel's housekeeper. Sure, she's kind, and she helps out a lot with Charlie, and because of this, we're supposed to find her shortcomings endearing. But in this book she does something very stupid financially, and Isabel is there, ex machina, to pull her out of the hole she's dug. It just irritates me that she was so stupid and that there's no natural price for stupidity. And didn't Isabel already buy her a house a while back? Am I misremembering? Honestly, I don't even particularly like Isabel at this point. I just read a review that called her a "sanctimonious bitch," and they have a point.

Book Notices | Grammar for a Full Life by Lawrence Weinstein

Lawrence Weinstein, Grammar for a Full Life


I didn't expect to like this book. Intrigued by the title, I figured I'd read a few pages to satisfy my curiosity and then delete it from my Kindle. Hippie treacle, I figured. But I was wrong.

Grammar for a Full Life is a collection of some 30 essays, a pleasing mix of grammar and philosophy, humane and thoughtful musings on the power of words and syntax and punctuation to enhance the human spirit. The essays are divided into thematic sections that relate to human needs—agency, belonging, freedom, and so on. One of my favorites of the bunch considers ellipses—both the punctuation mark and, more generally, elided words—and their connection to, well, connecting, because "a good deal goes without saying" in our most intimate relationships: "It is, to a large extent, the ellipsis which accounts for the joyful, bonding power inherent in the telling of a good joke." The same brief essay considers the poem "This Is Just to Say" by William Carlos Williams, in which the narrator confesses to eating plums that his reader was saving for breakfast. It's a love poem, Weinstein argues: "Between Williams's mischievous lines, I hear him saying, 'I feel so certain of our staying power as a couple that I have no fear even of reminding you of what a problematic choice of spouse you made.'"

Needless to say, I did not delete this book from my Kindle after a few pages. In fact, I had downloaded it for free as part of a complimentary trial subscription to Kindle Unlimited, and that subscription expired while I was in the middle of reading it. So I bought the book, and I bought it in hard copy—something I simply don't do these days unless a book is a fat dictionary or it's not in English. But this book is such a joy that I wanted to have it on hand for future thumbings-through. 

Book Notices | Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir / Helpless by Daniel Palmer

Andy Weir, Project Hail Mary


Project Hail Mary is another likable-smart-guy-in-space story from The Martian author Andy Weir. Ryland Grace isn’t stuck on Mars with a bunch of spuds. He’s been sent on an interstellar space mission with packets of food slurry so he can save the world. If you liked The Martian, in book or movie form, you’ll like this one too. And if you know anything about science — I don’t — you’ll probably enjoy it on a different level than I was able to because you’ll be better able to appreciate what Grace gets up to in space. (That’s assuming the details are believable enough that science types won’t find fault; I don’t know enough to comment on that aspect intelligently.) This was definitely a fun read. I guess Matt Damon can’t star in the movie version of this book too, so I’ll nominate Ryan Reynolds for the role. 

Daniel Palmer, Helpless


An ex-Navy Seal/high school soccer coach is framed for child pornography in a complex conspiracy that leaves him a pariah in small-town Shilo, New Hampshire. Plus, his destroyed reputation puts him on the outs with his daughter, who’s newly in his custody and unsure whether she can trust him. This book was very middle-of-the-road for me. I didn’t care about the characters very much and wasn’t interested enough in the details of the conspiracy to keep track of the plot. In general, too, I couldn’t get past the feeling that I was not in the hands of a confident storyteller.