Monday, February 18, 2019

Dreyer's English by Benjamin Dreyer

Dreyer’s English: an Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style is one of the funniest books I’ve ever read. It’s been a snowy, icy, chilly, and sometimes gloomy winter here in Chicagoland and I was contemplating hopping on a flight to escape until I opened the pages of Benjamin Dreyer’s magnum opus and without removing my slippers vacationed on every page. This handbook and style guide delivers sage advice for those of us who have an ongoing love affair with the English language while entertaining us by stating the rules in such a fresh and wry manner that we feel both smarter and happier for having read them. It’s also part memoir and the recollections Dreyer shares on working with writers like Richard Russo as Random House’s copy chief make it a page-turner.

If my mother were alive, we’d be spending hours on the phone reading to each other from almost every page. Mom, a former English teacher and lover of wry Noël Coward style humor, would have adored the entire book, but I think her favorite sentence might have been in the Peeves and Crotchets chapter regarding "INVITE (AS A NOUN): If your life expectancy is so limited that you don’t have the time to issue an invitation, you might not be up to throwing that party." I can almost hear her chuckling.

Having fervently believed that my worn copy of Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, Roget’s Thesaurus, and my Merriam-Webster dictionary are the only volumes I need within reach of my laptop, I’ve had to create additional space for what I’m already calling simply Dreyer’s. I need it there for quick advice and so I can turn to a random page and laugh when my brain is stuck.

In the chapter titled “A Little Grammar is a Dangerous Thing,” Dreyer skews the pretentious with: "Q. Is it 'It is I who is late' or It is I who am late'?  A. It’s 'I’m late.' Why make things more complicated than they need to be?"
His pronouncement on the word data made me spit my iced tea. "DATA: It’s a plural, it’s a singular, it’s a breath mint, it’s a dessert topping. The data supports the consensus that ‘data’ is popularly used as a singular noun, and it’s neither worth fussing over this nor raising the existence of the word 'datum.'  Move on already."

So, move on already. Move on to your nearest independent bookstore and pick up a copy of Dreyer’s English. While you’re there, grab a few extras to give as graduation gifts this spring.   

Summing it Up: Dreyer’s English is the best style guide since Strunk & White and it belongs in every home and office. It will make you smarter. It will make you a better writer. It will make you grateful that Benjamin Dreyer is alive.

Rating: 5 stars   
Category: Dessert, Five Stars, Gourmet, Nonfiction, Sushi
Publication date: January 29, 2019

What Others are Saying:
Publishers Weekly:

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

The Last Romantics by Tara Conklin

The Last Romantics uses a technique I can’t remember having read previously in the same manner – and I love it. Renowned poet, Fiona Skinner looks back on her childhood with her siblings in the year 2079 when she’s 102 and is questioned about the inspiration for her most famous poem. Fiona was the youngest of four when her father died and her mother took “The Pause,” an extended period in which the children had to raise themselves. The effects on Renee, the responsible eldest child, sweet Caroline, Joe, the athlete and charmer, and Fiona who observed everything with her keen eye reverberate for almost a century in Conklin’s steady hands. 

When the children are older, the novel closely follows star athlete Joe and his increasing problems, but even when endearing Joe's troubles can't be escaped, it's Fiona's astute observations that carry the book. From Fiona's blog detailing her sexual escapades to the poetry that brings her respect and acclaim, the novel captures Fiona's thoughts with a clever touch with simple yet not simplistic sentences like this one: "If you live long enough and well enough to know love, you will break someone's heart."

A novel set in the year 2079 is bound to touch on climate change and a changed world and The Last Romantics handles the issues well without belaboring them or turning a delicious narrative into a book in which issues trump story. The 2079 world is the setting for the novel: it isn't its raison d'etre. 

There are numerous plot twists in this family saga and attempting to name or describe them would diminish them so I'll simply suggest that you read The Last Romantics instead. Some think the novel resembles Ann Patchett's Commonwealth and both brilliantly describe four siblings and their growth, but I think The Last Romantics is more similar to Ian McEwan's Atonement in the ethereal outlook with which the narrator turns to the past to make sense of life.

Many readers liked Conklin's 2012 debut novel The House Girl.  I was not one of the book's fans so I wasn't sure I wanted to read The Last Romantics. I'm glad I overcame my concerns as Conklin’s growth since The House Girl is phenomenal.

Summing it Up: If you like family sagas filled with detours that feature elegant and clever writing, The Last Romantics is a novel you should read. It's also one that begs for discussion and that will have book clubs comparing the characters to their own families. 

Rating: 5 stars   
Category: Fiction, Five Stars, Grandma's Pot Roast, Book Club
Publication date: February 5, 2019

What Others Are Saying:
Kirkus Reviews:
Publishers Weekly:
Shelf Awareness: 

“It is a brave thing to write in the voice of a world-renowned centenarian poet, but damn if Tara Conklin doesn’t pull it off. In fact, all of the luxuriously spun characters in The Last Romantics, entwined via that impossible web we call family, unfold over their many years with the perfect balance of familiarity and wonder that makes turning their pages such a pleasure."
Laurie Frankel, New York Times bestselling author of This Is How It Always Is

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

The Best Books of 2018!

I spent most of 2018 renovating a townhouse and moving from our home of twenty-two years to our new home while work was still in progress. My ability to concentrate as walls came down, drywall went up, and dust found its way into the tiniest of openings left me questioning my sanity. Thankfully, great books offered me escape, mental stimulation, and the ability to see that life existed beyond the demands of building inspectors with Napoleonic tendencies. 

Yesterday, on the first day of the New Year, my son helped me move several boxes from our basement to the second-floor loft where the best cabinet makers built me new bookshelves. As I unloaded and began alphabetizing my favorites, I recalled how so many of them had enriched my life. These are the best books I read in 2018. Descriptions of all of them are on my annual list. Titles with a hashtag (#) have links to full reviews. See also the 2018 lists of the Best Mysteries, Suspense, and Thrillers and the Best Books for Escape. 

The Best Book of 2018!
Educated by Tara Westover will knock you over with a feather with prose that places you inside the exceptional life of Tara Westover. This memoir holds its own beside Mary Karr’s The Liars’ Club, Alexandra Fuller’s Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, and Jeannette Walls’ The Glass Castle as the best examples of resilience and hope in modern literary history. Tara Westover’s survivalist family kept her working at home so she didn’t attend school until she was 17. With little help, she taught herself enough to get into college where she didn’t know about the Holocaust or that she should wash her hands after using the toilet. This riveting page-turner features magnificent prose. Read it and select if for your book club.

The Best Novels I Read in 2018 (in alphabetical order because I love them like my children and cannot select a favorite):
An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
The Child Finder by Rene Denfeld (2017)
The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai
Hum If You Don’t Know the Words by Bianca Marais (2017)
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee (2017)
There There by Tommy Orange
The Unmade World by Steve Yarbrough
Where the Dead Sit Talking by Brandan Hobson

The Best Historical Novel I Read in 2018 (set at least 50 years ago):

Book shelving in progress thanks to Crestwood Custom Cabinets*

The Best Books for Book Clubs I Read in 2018 (in addition to those listed in the best books above all of which would be great for book clubs):
Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue (2016)
Enchanted by Rene Denfeld (2014)
The Keeper of Lost Things by Ruth Hogan (2017)
The Signal Flame by Andrew Krivak (2017)
The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivy (2012)
A Spark of Light by Jodi Picoult

The Best Debut Fiction I Read in 2018 (also great for book clubs):
Ginny Moon by Benjamin Ludwig
Only Child by Rhiannon Navin
There There by Tommy Orange
Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

The Best Books for Book Clubs Looking for an Easy Read and a Good Discussion:
How Hard Can It Be? By Allison Pearson
The Story of Arthur Truluv and Night of Miracles by Elizabeth Berg
Young Jane Young by Gabrielle Zevin (2017)

The Book You Must Read After You Read Hillbilly Elegy:
What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia by Elizabeth Catte

The Book You Must Read to Understand the Opioid Crisis and Its Effect on All of Us:
Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors, and the Drug Company that Addicted America by Beth Macy

The Book You Need to Read and Discuss to Understand the Importance of the Great Lakes:
The Death and Life of the Great Lakes by Dan Egan

The Book You Must Read and Discuss to Understand Microaggressions (and if you don’t know what that means, read this short book):
Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine (2014)

The Book You Need to Read to Understand the “Other” Border:
Northland: A 4,000-Mile Journey Along America’s Forgotten Border by Porter Fox

*The world’s best cabinet makers are the team at Crestwood Custom Cabinets in Crestwood, Illinois (708-385-3167) who built our kitchen, bathroom, and wet bar cabinets and bookshelves for us. Their work is exquisite. They think outside the box and they do so in a timely manner. They're one of the reasons I survived 2018.

Thursday, December 27, 2018

The Best Mysteries, Suspense Novels, and Thrillers of 2018

When my brain refuses to function and I can’t even recall how to get from HDMI 1 to HDMI 3 on my “smart” TV to watch a movie, I like to read mysteries to see if I can beat the detectives in identifying the perpetrator. Some people do jigsaw puzzles to relax, I read mysteries and suspense novels. The best ones I read in 2018 featured strong, multidimensional characters, engaging plots, and entrancing settings.

The Best Mystery/Suspense Novel/Thriller of 2018:
The Witch Elm by Tana French has everything I love in a suspense novel – fine writing, a captivating story, and psychological twists rarely found in crime fiction. The Witch Elm differs from her Dublin Murder Squad series as it primarily highlights a crime victim. Toby, the protagonist, has always considered himself lucky until he’s beaten in a robbery in his Dublin apartment. He heads to his family’s ancestral estate for a change of scenery to help him recover while he assists his dying uncle. When a human skull is found in a tree in the garden, Toby must reconcile what he’s believed about himself and his family with the facts he and the detectives on the case keep finding. Toby’s brain injury makes him a truly unreliable narrator both to himself and to those investigating his beating and the story behind the skull. French sets the gold standard for suspense.

The Best Mysteries, Suspense Novels, and Thrillers I Read in 2018:

Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke won the 2018 Edgar Award and is a masterful mystery with twists of insight about race, greed, and fear. Locke is probably best known as the writer and producer of the television drama Empire, but her fantastic debut Black Water Rising was also an Edgar nominee. This 2017 thriller features John Lee Hooker’s lyric “Bluebird, bluebird, take this letter down South for me’ which becomes real when Michael Wright, a black University of Chicago educated attorney, travels to East Texas to return a guitar his father held for years. When Wright’s bloated body shows up followed by the remains of a white waitress who died a few days after him, Darren, an African-American Texas Ranger with problems, sees a shot at redemption if he can solve the crime. Great writing and subtle plot twists make this both an engaging page-turner and a finely written novel.

The Child Finder by Rene Denfeld is difficult to classify. Is it a psychological suspense thriller, literary fiction, or a fairy tale? Whatever its classification, it’s magnificent. Naomi is a private investigator who searches for and finds missing children. She was once a missing child herself and is still recovering memories from her past. Madison, a child she’s tracking, disappeared after wandering off when her family was searching for a Christmas tree deep in a wintery Oregon forest. She’s being held captive in a remote cabin by her “rescuer” and she survives by imagining her own fairy tales. This book is brilliant, breathtaking and full of hope. A friend who usually refuses to read any book with a child in danger or hurt adored The Child Finder. The minor characters and secondary stories are just as compelling and insightful as the main plotline.

The Dry by Jane Harper is the compelling 2016 tale of federal agent Aaron Falk’s return to his hometown after his childhood friend and family were brutally murdered. Falk and his father had been run out of their small Australian town when he was a teen and many townspeople still thought he was connected to the drowning of a girl there. The town is in the midst of a long drought both literally and in terms of any hope for its citizens. This tight debut mystery builds suspense as it offers clues to how fear, greed, hatred, and loyalty make a case for more than one possible culprit

The Kingdom of the Blind by Louise Penny uses blindness as a metaphor for the acceptance and allowance of evil as long as we don’t actually see it. This, the fourteenth in the Inspector Gamache series, is, as always, phenomenal at making readers feel that they are in mythical Three Pines as a part of the Inspector’s team. Gamache and Myrna, the bookseller/psychologist, are named executors of a stranger’s will and one of the beneficiaries dies suspiciously. Gamache also tackles the tracing of an opioid shipment from a previous case that offers new twists. That Penny can take a simple murder mystery and make it a universal inspection of the heart in every single novel, is truly extraordinary. Read her earlier titles first.

My Favorite Unreliable Narrator Tales of 2018:

Bring Me Back by B.A. Paris is a thriller that keeps you guessing because you don’t know who to trust. What part did Finn play in the disappearance of Layla twelve years previously? Can he trust Ruby or even his best friend Harry? Since Finn became engaged to Layla’s sister Ellen, Russian nesting doll pieces have begun appearing. Do they mean that Layla’s alive? I found myself begging Finn to tell the police about the dolls, but that might have meant no story.

The Real Michael Swann by Bryan Reardon builds suspense with short, staccato chapters. Julia Swann is talking on the phone with her husband Michael when the call drops. She soon learns that a bomb has gone off in New York’s Penn Station where Michael was awaiting a train home when their call ended. She heads to the city to find him but finds only questions. Is Michael alive? What happened to him? What should Julia do? This is one page-turner of a page-turner.

The Wife Between Us by Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkannen, Fans of unreliable narrators like those in Gone Girl will enjoy figuring out if sweet preschool teacher Nellie, her controlling fiancé, or his boozy ex-wife are telling the truth. The hair on the back of your neck will warn you that something sinister is coming. Let’s leave it to the reader to ascertain.

The Woman in the Window by A.J. Finn introduces eerie character Anna, a child psychologist, who lives alone in a New York suburb where she drinks wine and watches movies on TV while spying on her neighbors. When she sees a horrific crime across the park in her new neighbors’ home, she doesn’t know what to do. The novel evokes the qualities of a Hitchcock movie, but the pacing of the last quarter of the book could have been tightened to keep the suspense building. Despite that quibble, the secrets of Anna’s past and her unreliability make this a compelling read and I can’t wait for more from Finn.

The Cleverest Take on Politics and Money in a Mystery I Read in 2018:
Murder in the One Percent by Saralyn Richard is an engaging procedural with an unexpectedly delicious twist of an ending that will leave readers wanting more of Detective Oliver Parrot. The satirical jabs at the suspects and their “affluenza” deliver a tasty treat of a whodunit. The elite gathers for a 65th birthday party at a country estate and one of them is murdered. Finding the murderer hits the highest stakes with even the President of the US demanding a quick resolution.

The Most Compelling Feminist Mystery I Read in 2018:
Barbed Wire Heart by Tess Sharpe is a thriller with a feminist twist. Harley, the heir to an illegal drug empire, funds and protects the women and children at a women’s shelter she’s helped create. She’ll do anything to protect them and her turf. Will, the boy raised with her, tells her “You gotta be like barbed wire. Tough no matter what, ready to tangle with anyone who gets too close. If you stay like that, you’ll be too strong for anyone to hurt you.” Can she survive without becoming the worst of what she sees and has learned? It’s rare to find a fine tale of suspense that makes the reader ponder issues of such importance.                                                                                                                       
A Delightful Mystery Series that Captures Northern Michigan:
Murder at Cherokee Point by Peter Marabell is the first in a series of Michael Russo mysteries set in the Petoskey, Michigan area where the privileged residents of a gated resort north of Harbor Springs don’t want anyone investigating a murder within their borders. The police ask local attorney Russo to assist and he’s soon warned to desist by a Chicago Mafia boss. Sheer fun. It came out in 2014. Once you read it you’ll want to read the sequels: Murder on Lake Street, Devils are Here, and Death Lease. Marabell’s familiarity with Northern Michigan make the Mackinac Island, Petoskey, and Harbor Springs settings perfect escapes for visiting tourists.

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

The Best “Sometimes You Need to Escape” Fiction of 2018

It’s the day after Christmas and you may be cleaning up after a big meal, trying to find the pieces to put together a toy, missing a loved one, wishing you didn’t have to work  when everyone else seems to be enjoying leisure time, feeling concerned because you don’t have a job or are on furlough with the government shutdown, figuring out how to pay for gifts you bought or necessities that made you unable to buy certain gifts, or feeling out of sorts because the holidays aren’t the “hap, hap, happiest time of the year” for you. You need to escape and the following novels are your passport to getting away from real life if only for a short while.

The Best “Sometimes You Need to Escape” Novel of 2018:

How Hard Can It Be? by Allison Pearson
In this stand-alone sequel to Pearson’s I Don’t Know How She Does It,” protagonist Kate is approaching fifty with surly teenagers, parents facing health issues, and a husband having a midlife crisis that leaves the entire family vulnerable. Pearson turns the turmoil into a hilarious, yet poignant and insightful tale of what it means to be the one who has to hold everything together when she just wants to take a nap. Everyone I know has adored this book.

The Rest of the Best “Sometimes You Need to Escape" Novels I Read in 2018:

Ginny Moon by Benjamin Ludwig is a 2017 debut delight. Thirteen-year-old Ginny is autistic. Life with her foster family should be settling down, but Ginny keeps testing the limits in her quest to find her “Baby Doll” left behind four years previously when Ginny was taken from her abusive, drug addict mother. Ginny’s certain that “Baby Doll” is in a suitcase and if she can just find her mother things will be okay so she tracks her mother on Facebook, steals a classmate’s cell phone, and runs away. This heart-warming, humorous adventure has a fantastic ending. Having a bad day, read this original novel. The author is the foster parent of an autistic teen and he writes with amazing insight.

How to Walk Away by Katherine Center is pure escape with a dollop of wit and a message. A book about a young woman left unable to walk by an accident her fiancé caused on the night of their engagement wouldn’t seem like a chocolate covered meringue of a read, but it is. Lovers of literary fiction may not enjoy it, but anyone looking for a light romantic read that is impossible to put down will find it between these pages. Brené Brown loved it.

The Keeper of Lost Things by Ruth Hogan, published in 2017, is magnetic. Anthony Peardew, (yes, as in the French word “perdu” meaning lost), an aging author, has a room of lost things that help him cope with his continuing grief from his fiancée’s death many years previously. He hires Laura who’s also lost after her divorce and she begins stewardship of his “lost and found” items. Blended with the tale of another unlikely couple, the book offers many twists and turns, delightful bon mots, and sufficient humor to make it a pleasing escape with enough meaning that it’s a book club favorite.

The President’s Hat by Antoine Laurain, published in 2013, is a philosophical romp by the author of the brilliant The Red Notebook. Focusing on the changes four people possessing French President Francois Mitterand’s black homburg make to better themselves, it’s a primer on optimism and metamorphosis. It’s a grown-up “Wizard of Oz” type fable.

The Story of Arthur Truluv and its sequel Night of Miracles by Elizabeth Berg are sure hits:

The Story of Arthur Truluv, out in 2017, introduces readers to Arthur Morse who’s spent the six months since his wife’s death riding the bus daily to the cemetery to eat lunch at her gravesite. One day he meets 18-year-old Maddy who visits the cemetery to escape the kids at her school. Maddy nicknames Arthur “Truluv” and they soon help each other navigate their lives. Adding Arthur’s neighbor Lucille to their circle, they create an endearing ensemble sure to delight readers.

Night of Miracles is a stand-alone novel featuring characters from The Story of Arthur Truluv. While you could read it without reading Arthur, please don’t as you’ll miss so much. Lucille, a baker extraordinaire, hires new resident Iris to help her with her baking classes and more town relationships develop.

Young Jane Young by Gabrielle Zevin came out in 2017 and differs from her hit The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry in that it’s lighter and more humorous than the philosophical A. J. Fikry. Told from the points of view of Aviva Grossman, her mother, and a delightful young girl, the novel shows what being a mother means and what being true to self requires. Aviva, a college intern, has a steamy affair with her congressman boss and is slut-shamed. If reading details of such an affair bothers you, this might not be your cup of tea. The characters will make you laugh out loud especially if you listen to the audio; they will also force you to reexamine some of your ideas.

Image credit: