Thursday, May 12, 2022

Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus

Lessons in Chemistry is the book I’ve been dreaming of since I finished Katherine Heiny’s Early Morning Riser last year. It’s just the quirky, wry, sharp, complex story we all need when the world seems both chaotic and frightening. When I was reading Lessons in Chemistry, I laughed out loud, I cheered on the protagonist, and as the book ended, I sighed over how little progress women have made since the 1960s.

The novel takes place primarily in the 1960s when Elizabeth Zott, a brilliant chemist blacklisted from getting a Ph.D. after being sexually assaulted, takes a job at Hastings, a private lab, and meets Calvin Evans, the lab’s most prominent chemist. They fall deeply in love and she moves into Calvin’s home. They’re ecstatically happy together when Calvin dies in a freak accident. Elizabeth soon learns that she’s pregnant and the lab’s director fires her. Desperate for money to support herself and her baby, Elizabeth takes a job hosting Supper at Six, a TV cooking show. She isn’t happy, but the ratings are good so she makes more money than she did as a chemist. She closes each show with “Children, set the table, your mother needs a moment to herself.”

She had wanted to continue her research in abiogenesis, but Donatti, the director of Chemistry at Hastings, hated her and despite funding for her passion, he didn’t want her around. Garmus’s treatment of characters like Donatti showcases both the novel’s comedic sense and the depiction of the times: 

“Elizabeth Zott. He didn’t like Zott. She was pushy, smart, opinionated. Worse, she had terrible taste in men. Unlike so many others, though, he did not find Zott attractive. He glanced down at a silver-framed photograph of his family: three big-eared boys bracketed by the sharp-beaked Edith and himself. He and Edith were a team the way couples were meant to be a team—not by sharing hobbies like rowing for fuck’s sake—but in the way their sexes deemed socially and physically appropriate. He brought home the bacon; she pumped out the babies. It was a normal, productive, God-approved marriage. Did he sleep with other women? What a question. Didn’t everyone?”

Bonnie Garmus makes Elizabeth Zott, her daughter, her dog, her neighbor, and every single character in this novel come alive. The novel celebrates smart women and girls with humor while showing how good men also make a difference. Calvin’s childhood secrets and the mysterious foundation funding Hastings offer subplots that keep the action moving in this propulsive page-turner. Everything in the universe seems to be conspiring against Elizabeth, yet she triumphs and that my friends is exactly what we need to see and salute in this strange world that seems to be working to reduce women’s rights. 

Summing it Up: Read Lessons in Chemistry for a fast-paced, character-driven tale that’s long on humor and filled with wisdom and nuance. Chuckle as the gifted Elizabeth refuses to act dumb to get ahead and cheer as the bad guys get their comeuppance. Smile at Elizabeth’s brilliant, protective dog and celebrate authors like Bonnie Garmus.

Rating: 5 Stars

Publication Date: April 5, 2022

Category: Fiction, Five Stars, Dessert, Grandma’s Pot Roast, Pigeon Pie, Sushi, Book Club

Author Website:

Read an Excerpt:

What Others Are Saying: 

Kirkus Reviews:

New York Times:

Publishers Weekly:

A book that sparks joy with every page. . . It had me laughing one minute and air-punching the next. Elizabeth Day, author of “How to Fail”

“Elizabeth and Calvin’s prickly, funny and odd love story leaps off the page. The two are truly soul mates, and their happiness should be ordained, but life and this novel are far more complicated than that ... becomes a witty and sharp dramedy about resilience and found families ... The scope of what this iconoclastic woman goes through is breathtaking ... Not one moment of Elizabeth’s story rings false; every detail is a well-documented component of the time period yet specific to her experience. Readers won’t be able to get enough of Elizabeth and her makeshift family. Lessons in Chemistry is a story to return to again and again.” —Bookpage

Saturday, May 7, 2022

What Kind of Mother?

Mothers come in all shapes and sizes. There are “Hallmark” card mothers who resemble moms in 1950s sit-coms. There are step-mothers who nurture and women without biological children who make a difference in the lives of many children. These books feature unique forms of what our culture calls “mothering.” 

*The Last Thing He Told Me by Laura Dave is a suspense-filled thriller that’s also a careful pondering of trust, marriage, and family allegiance. Hannah and Owen have been married for a year when he disappears and leaves a note saying Protect her. Hannah knows he’s writing about his 16-year-old daughter Bailey whose mother died when she was four. When the FBI and a U.S. Marshall visit her, Hannah learns that Owen wasn’t who she thought he was. She puts herself in danger to try to learn enough to keep herself and Bailey safe. Great twists in a book I could not put down for a minute. GPR, BC (2021)

*Somebody’s Daughter: A Memoir  by Ashley C. Day focuses primarily on
Ford’s childhood and young adulthood as she examines how growing up with her father in prison and her mother unable to give unconditional love because of her own trauma had such a profound effect on Ashley’s life. Her grandmother’s influence helps us see how Ashley survived. The writing is brilliant with lines like: “My earliest memories are sunburnt Polaroids, frozen moments gone blurry at the edges and spotted all down the middle. Then, at four, the pictures become clearer as do the voices within them.” Read this memoir! G/GPR, BC (2021)

+Honor by Thrity Umrigar, Smita left India with her family as a young teen and promised herself she’d never return, but when her closest friend and fellow journalist falls ill and can’t tell the story of Meena, a Hindu woman attacked by her family for marrying a Muslim man, Smita feels compelled to return to write the story. Meena and her daughter Abru captured my heart with the horrors of their lives plus the way the treatment of women and anyone a group deems “other” is beautifully, but tragically, told. I can’t think of another author who consistently makes readers bear witness to those treated as less than human as well as Umrigar does and also did in her magnum opus The Space Between Us. This novel will break your heart in a good way, GPR/SN, BC

*Untamed by Glennon Doyle, Doyle was a best-selling Christian author known for her bravery and openness in sharing her marital and substance-abuse struggles when she announced that she’d fallen in love with soccer star Abby Wambach. Read her story for sentences like “Being fully human is not about feeling happy, it’s about feeling everything.” Her insights on control and trusting our instincts feel right because she presents them with courage and honesty. She also shows that a woman can’t be a good parent if she isn’t true to herself. GPR/SF, BC (2021)

*Clark and Division by Naomi Hirahara is a compelling and insightful mystery wrapped in a historical fiction novel set primarily in 1944 Chicago. I lived within two blocks of the intersection noted in the title in the 1970s and had never heard of a Japanese-American community there. Aki Ito and her parents have just been released from an internment camp in Manzanar, CA, so they follow Aki’s sister Rose to Chicago where she’s killed by a subway train the night before they arrive. When officials say Rose killed herself, Aki can’t believe it could be true, so she investigates and learns of sinister plots and bigotry. I’m hoping for a sequel to this Edgar Award-winning author’s latest that embeds you in the story. GPR/PP/SN, BC (2021) Note: I just learned from the author that there will be a sequel. Evergreen will come out in August, 2023. 

+Take My Hand by Dolen Perkins-Valdez is especially timely after the recently leaked SCOTUS draft on abortion. This novel takes place primarily in 1973 Montgomery, AL, where Civil, a newly graduated Black nurse, works in a federally funded clinic serving poor Black women and girls. When Civil learns that she’s to administer unapproved birth control shots to 11 and 13-year-old girls, she tries to intervene but doesn’t act quickly enough to prevent the girls’ sterilization. The novel also looks at Civil in 2016 when she’s near the end of her career as an OB-GYN who can’t stop thinking about the past despite all she’s done for women and girls. It’s a page-turner that Brit Bennett’s and Tayari Jones’ fans will enjoy. Read it to learn about forced sterilization and horrific medical treatments done to Black women and to grieve what we’ve allowed. GS/PP/SN, BC

Tuesday, April 19, 2022

Stay Gone Days by Steve Yarbrough

That Steve Yarbrough isn’t one of our most well-known American authors is a conundrum. He’s championed and praised by great writers including Ron Rash and Julia Glass, yet many readers don’t know him. His writing celebrates ordinary lives and quietly makes them feel extraordinary and perhaps it’s that subdued style that keeps him below the radar. In his latest novel, Stay Gone Days, he’s captured the lives of two estranged sisters living on separate continents. If you loved the characters, setting, and language of Ann Patchett’s Dutch House, Elizabeth Strout’s My Name is Lucy Barton, or Anne Tyler’s many novels, you’ll find Stay Gone Days equally compelling with its intimate portraits of sisters Ella and Caroline Cole. 

After a tragic accident in the small Mississippi town where they grew up, teenagers Ella and Caroline become separated. They were always different with elder Ella making perfect grades and doing what she was told in their small, all-white private school, one they attended despite being dirt poor. Caroline was more of a rebel often skipping school. “Today, Caroline determines, will be a Stay Gone Day. She’ll leave school on the sly and stay gone until tomorrow.” Later, the sisters head in different directions with Ella getting a voice scholarship to the Berklee College of Music then dropping out and becoming a waitress and Caroline traveling west and eventually having to escape from a violent ex-boyfriend. Both of them carry deep emotional wounds, yet they carry on.

Ella meets and marries dependable Martin, also a Berklee dropout, who becomes a record producer. He has money and an old, comfortable home where they raise two daughters and Ella seems to find peace although her escalating intake of alcohol might say otherwise. Martin tries to get her to visit her hometown, but something always interferes. Still, Ella continuously searches for her sister, but it appears that Caroline Cole has disappeared. 

Caroline hasn’t disappeared though and she knows exactly where Ella is. Caroline has settled in Warsaw where she enjoys teaching English while working on her writing. She’s built a decent life in Poland. Then, one day, Ella walks into a bookstore and sees a novel called Stay Gone Days written by Karo Kohl. The book, a chronicle of estranged sisters, opens the door to a possible reunion. 

In Yarbrough’s skilled hands, we inhabit Ella’s and Caroline’s lives as we observe the quotidian details evolve. We find ourselves cheering for them to reconcile as Yarbrough has made us know them well enough that we’re certain of their need for each other. Steve Yarbrough makes it matter to us. He makes us feel a deep longing for them to be together. He makes us care and isn’t that what fine novelists do? 

Summing it Up: Read Stay Gone Days to fall into an authentic rendering of a family dynamic that is both personal and universal. Read it to escape into expertly depicted settings in rural Mississippi, Cape Cod, the Boston suburbs, Northern California, Rome, and Warsaw. Savor it for the intimate stories of two sisters who will capture your heart.

Rating: 5 Stars

Categories: Five Stars, Fiction, Grandma’s Pot Roast, Book Club

Publication Date: April 19, 2022

Author Website:

An Interview with the Author:

What Others Are Saying: 

Publishers Weekly:

Masterful and moving, Stay Gone Days is the story of the diverging yet ultimately intertwined destinies of two sisters, told on a scale both intimate and sweeping. I followed them across continents and decades, through loves and losses, always on the edge of my seat. I finished with tears in my eyes and wonder in my heart.” — Julia Glass

“There is so much to praise about this novel: the vivid, precise language, the expansiveness of the settings, how deeply we come to care about Caroline and Ella. But it all leads to this: we enter many books, but only a few enter us, then lodge in our consciousness as deeply as lived memories. Stay Gone Days is one of these. Steve Yarbrough is one of our country’s finest living novelists.” —Ron Rash

Saturday, April 9, 2022

The Violin Conspiracy by Brendan Slocumb

The Violin Conspiracy is a tantalizing thriller combined with a coming-of-age novel that explores racism in the world of classical music.  Ray is a high school senior and a gifted violinist. His mother wants him to quit school, get his GED, find a job at Popeye’s, and help her pay bills. His Grandma Nora loves hearing him play and tells him how he inherited his talent from her grandfather whose enslaver gave her grandfather the fiddle he played. Grandma Nora finds the fiddle in her attic and gives it to Ray before her death. The instrument is in bad shape, but finally, Ray has his own violin. 

Encouraged by a wonderful teacher, Ray goes to college and becomes an accomplished  violinist. When it’s discovered that Ray’s fiddle is a Stradivarius worth 10 million dollars, Ray becomes a media sensation while he’s training to compete in the elite Tchaikovsky Competition. Two weeks before he’s to leave for Moscow, his violin is mysteriously stolen. Ray’s remaining family thinks they deserve to split the insurance money if the violin isn’t recovered. The descendants of his great grandfather’s enslaver say it belongs to them. As Ray juggles practicing for the competition with trying to recover his violin and fighting the claims of the two families, the tension builds. 

Just below the surface, staccato bursts of racist micro aggressions and more serious racist attacks threaten Ray’s ambitions. 

“So here’s what you do if you’re a Black guy trying to make it work in an unfamiliar world:,” Ray tells us. “ You just put your head down and do the work. You do twice as much work as the white guy sitting next to you and you do it twice as often, and you get half as far. But you do it.” 

Underlying the mystery of the violin’s disappearance is the music that forms a literary soundtrack for the novel. The reader is enveloped in the sounds of Ray’s music and the expert writing makes the reader feel that it’s actually playing. I read this novel, but I could swear that I heard Ray’s strings. 

Author Brendan Slocumb has been a music educator for Kindergarten through 12th grades for 23 years. He’s played the violin with several orchestras and is the concertmaster for the NOVA-Annandale Symphony Orchestra. His musical knowledge and experiences make the novel real. 

Summing It Up: Read The Violin Conspiracy to experience a young Black man’s will to succeed as a classical violinist when the world tries to hold him back. Keep turning the pages faster after his Stradivarius is stolen and every clue leads to a new and frightening development. Listen to the soundtrack in your head as the music builds. Embrace your concerns as Ray’s family and the descendants of his ancestor’s enslaver try to cheat him.

Rating: 5 Stars

Publication Date: February 1, 2022

Categories: Fiction, Five Stars, Mysteries and Thrillers, Super Nutrition, Book Club

Author Website:

Interview with the Author:

Read an Excerpt:

Reading Group Guide:

What Others are Saying:

Kirkus Reviews:

New York Times:


Publishers Weekly:

The Washington Post:

“Finally, classical music gets the complex treatment it deserves. A wide-eyed look at the art form and it’s discontents.” — Gary Shteyngart

“Utterly original and downright gripping, The Violin Conspiracy is more than a mystery—it’s an unflinching peek into the heart and soul of a gifted Black violinist striving to pursue his passion in the face of adversity. Brendan Slocumb’s debut is an essential lesson in artistry, prejudice, and persistence.”  — Zaria Daliia Harris

Monday, March 14, 2022

The Swimmers by Julie Otsuka

Julie Otsuka is one of my favorite authors. Her Buddha in the Attic and When the Emperor Was Devine are two of the books I cherish and reread. (Read them both of you haven’t yet.) Her unique style always arrests the reader. In her newest novel, The Swimmers, as in her previous efforts, she begins in the first-person-plural with lists that focus the reader’s attention. In this case, the lists come from a Greek chorus of swimmers at an underground community pool.

“Up above there are wildfires, smog alerts, epic droughts, paper jams, teachers’ strikes, insurrections, revolutions, blisteringly hot days that never seem to let up (Massive “Heat Dome” Permanently Stalled over Entire West Coast), but down below, at the pool, it is always a comfortable eighty-­one degrees. The humidity is sixty-­five percent. The visibility is clear. The lanes are orderly and calm.” 

Later, the novel switches to second person and we learn that Alice, one of the regulars, is in the early stages of dementia, yet she still swims and one of the pool’s unwritten rules is “Be nice to Alice.”

“You wake up one day and you can’t even remember your name (It’s Alice). But until that day comes you keep your eyes focused on that painted black line on the bottom of your lane and you do what you must: You swim on.” 

Alice and her fellow swimmers, people of all walks of life, swim on every single day, doggedly devoted to their daily laps. Then a mysterious crack appears in the pool and the swimmers’ fears grow as newer cracks follow. Not knowing how or why the cracks are there, the swimmers’ anxiety rises. Just as the progression and cause of Alice’s forgetfulness are frightening in their unpredictability, so are the mirroring fissures in the pool. 

Alice’s disease progresses and she moves to Belavista, a for-profit memory care facility. There the focus shifts to her memories including reflections on her internment as a Japanese-American during World War II and to her daughter’s lamentations and regrets over not being present for her parents. As in all her novels, Otsuka pierces the reader’s heart with short, staccato-like sentences: “Later, your mother says, ‘Didn’t everything used to have a name?’”

Summing it Up: The Swimmers is a heartbreaking and tender novel of loss and fear with a touch of biting satire. It’s also a master class in writing that shows how the right words used with precision go straight to the reader’s soul. The Swimmers embeds the reader inside the deteriorating mind of an aging woman and forces the reader to see the realities of her journey and the toll it takes on others. It’s written with dignity and restraint, but it’s still a difficult emotional read. Select it for your book club so you’ll have companions for the journey.

Like Otsuka’s other magnificent novels, this one isn’t long. At 176 pages, there isn’t a single unnecessary word to be found.

Rating: 5 Stars

Categories: Fiction, Five Stars, Gourmet, Tapas, Book Club

Publication Date: March 7, 2022

Author Website:

Read an Excerpt: 

Interview with the Author: If you do nothing else, read or listen to this interview on Fresh Air with Terry Gross:

What Others are Saying: 

Kirkus Reviews:

Library Journal:

L.A. Times:

New York Times:

Publishers Weekly:

Thursday, March 10, 2022

Like a Complete Unknown by Anara Guard


A novel set in Chicago in 1970, the year I graduated from college and moved to Chicago, was certain to attract my attention. I wondered if it could capture the city I encountered in that year of flower children, the Viet Nam War draft, and back-alley abortions we heard of in whispers. Like a Complete Unknown painted a picture-perfect portrait of 1970 Chicago. For those who didn’t live through the misogyny of those years when many doctors refused to prescribe birth control to unmarried women and some of the best restaurants didn’t allow women in their grills, Anara Guard shows the effects via a young teenage girl. Katya Warshawsky wants to be an artist, but just before she is to turn sixteen, her immigrant mother tells her she must quit school and accompany her to clean high-rise offices at night. Fearing the loss of her dream, Katya packs her art supplies and a few clothes and heads to the north side. Hungry and out of money, she leaves the YWCA which she can no longer afford and follows charismatic Harlow, a socialist dreamer, who offers her comfort and his bed. Believing herself to be pregnant, she enters Dr. Robert Lewis’s office but doesn’t return for her test results. 

Dr. Lewis, a widower, sees something in Katya after she draws a beautiful sketch of his wife from the photograph in his office. He’s determined to find Katya to see if he can help her so he enlists the assistance of a young draft dodger and begins to find his way back to connecting with others. 

The characters are beautifully composed and their hopes and fears feel realistic. The doctor still ate alone once a week at Stouffer’s and “raised a glass of ice water to silently toast the empty seat opposite him” where “the dining room was filled with coiffed and gloved ladies” giving readers both a glimpse into the world of dining in Chicago’s Loop in the early 1970s and an idea of the doctor’s loneliness. The book also contrasts that world with that of the long-haired, barefoot protestors in Grant Park just a few blocks from the formality of Stouffer’s.

Anara Guard weaves the tales of the doctor, the desperate pregnant teen, the compassionate draft dodger, and the wise and courageous waitress into a fast-paced novel with touches of the poetic.  I loved this book but didn’t love the ending. It isn’t often that I decry a happy ending, but it felt too “tied up in a bow” perfect and unrealistic. I’m sure that many readers will love it though. 

Summing it Up: Read Like a Complete Unknown to step into authentic, technicolor 1970 Chicago where you can feel the roar of the El overhead. Experience the growing pains of young Katya as she embraces who she wants to become despite having no say about her body. Celebrate the emergence of Dr. Lewis from his self-inflicted cocoon into a world where he can help others and experience love. Grasp the fears of 18-year-olds whose birthdates meant being sent to die in Viet Nam. Like a Complete Unknown will embed you in 1970 Chicago and the lives of characters you’ll love. 

A special shout-out to Richard Ljoenes for the gorgeous cover that’s a perfect depiction of the novel. 

Rating: 4 Stars

Categories: Fiction, Grandma’s Pot Roast, Pigeon Pie, Super Nutrition, Book Club

Publication Date: March 8, 2022

Author Website:

Reading Group Guide:

Read an Excerpt:

What Others are Saying:

Foreword Reviews:

San Francisco Book Review:

The moving tale of a runaway girl as she experiences the chaos, danger, and ultimately, the beauty of Chicago’s counter-culture in 1970. A gripping story that lingers in memory long after the last satisfying page is turned.” — Lois Ann Abraham, author of Tina Goes to Heaven

Monday, March 7, 2022

Bad Blood Sisters by Saralyn Richard

Bad Blood Sisters
by Saralyn Richard is an engaging thriller of a murder mystery with intricate psychological twists. I love epigraphs, those short quotations at the beginning of books that often foretell the book’s themes. Bad Blood Sisters has four of them and they each provide clues to the coming mystery and its solution. The first two hint at the inner turmoil and profession of the book’s protagonist. 

The past is dead and buried. But I know that buried things have a way of rising to the surface when one least expects them to.”  — Dan Simmons, Prayers to Broken Stones

“Not everything buried is actually dead.” — Louise Penny, Bury Your Dead

Quinn and her family have a mortuary and funeral home and Quinn’s brother Jack has advanced diabetes and desperately needs a kidney transplant so Quinn has had to pick up the slack since Jack can no longer prepare bodies for burial. That makes it even more difficult for her to spend time with her boyfriend Josh, a fifth-year surgical resident at the local hospital, due to their often conflicting schedules. When word comes that Jack has a match for a transplant, their parents rush to the hospital and Quinn takes care of business at the mortuary. 

The next body entrusted to their care is that of murder victim Ana Renfroe who was Quinn’s childhood best friend, someone she hadn’t been close to for several years. Adding to the drama is the strong possibility that Jack might have received Ana’s kidney. That’s where the third and fourth of the book’s epigraphs hint that there may be more to Ana and Quinn’s abandoned friendship.

There is no place for secrets in sisterhood.” — Erin Forbes, Fire and Ice: The Kindred Woods

“I love you with everything I am. For so long I wanted to be just like you. But I had to figure out that I am someone too, and now I can carry you, your heart with mine, everywhere I go.” — Ava Dellaria, Love Letters to the Dead

Ana and Quinn had been extraordinarily close as young teenagers, but after pledging never to tell a secret, they drifted apart. Now Ana has been murdered and the police have discovered Quinn’s address on Ava’s calendar so they question her and she learns that Ana died while saying Quinn’s name. Author Saralyn Richard describes Quinn’s anguish well: “Her head was spinning with questions of her own, the same ones over again like a scratched CD. “ 

Soon Quinn’s home is vandalized and she begins receiving threatening notes. Her boyfriend wants to help, but she’s reluctant to open up to him completely despite loving him. Quinn hires an attorney who guides her and provides insight into what the police investigation is learning. Once again, our author offers more than a simple whodunnit with this description: “The attorney’s eyebrows were drawn so close together, like dark valances on a drapery rod. Quinn felt sorry for anyone having to oppose those eyebrows in court.”

As the investigation focuses more on Quinn and what she might know, she becomes determined to solve the case even if it leads her into danger. While this mystery offers just the right amount of escape, it also offers Quinn’s motivation to prove her worth to her mother who was always trying to make Quinn something bigger, something her mother could brag about. That determination leads Quinn into danger and readers go along for the tumultuous ride.

Summing it Up: Bad Blood Sisters is both a traditional whodunnit that you’ll want to gulp down in one sitting and a psychological tale of insight into the hidden costs of holding onto secrets that won’t stay buried. You’ll love Quinn’s growth and you’ll shiver at the climax of this engaging story. The characters are well-drawn, the mystery is plausible and intriguing, and the details are well-researched and realistic.

Attention Book Clubs: I lead several book groups and one of my favorite devices to promote discussion is talking about a book’s epigraphs and how they foreshadow the action and enliven the book’s themes. If you have a book club, the four epigraphs in this mystery will engage your members in a compelling discussion. 

Rating: 4 Stars

Categories: Chinese Carryout, Fiction, Grandma’s Pot Roast, Mysteries, Suspense, and Thrillers, Book Club

Publication Date: March 9, 2022

Author Website:

Interview with the Author:

What Others are Saying:

Midwest Book Review:

Saralyn Richard's Bad Blood Sisters has suspense and surprises aplenty. A gripping story of a woman wrenched from the safety of her life, and her race to reclaim it." "A delicious five-star mystery served with a side of nail-biting suspense and a dash of romance for dessert. Genre-smashing goodness!" —

“A delicious five-star mystery served with a side of nail-biting suspense and a dash of romance for dessert.” — Avanti Centrae, author of the VanOps thrillers

“A tense, suspenseful novel about engaging characters. Will Quinn lose her life and a chance at happiness because of a fifteen-year-old secret?” — Allison Brook, author of the Haunted Library mysteries