Thursday, September 16, 2021

In the Aftermath by Jane Ward


David Herron and his wife Jules own a bakery. Jules is a baker extraordinaire. She bakes artisanal bread, complicated cakes, and delicious cookies. David, an accountant, attends to the financial details—or so Jules thinks. One morning in that worst of years to have monetary problems—2008, David doesn’t show up for work. He’s called his best friend Charlie to meet him at a coffee shop by the beach to talk, but Charlie is running late so David takes off his shoes and walks into the water leaving the heartache of overextended loans and a twice-mortgaged home, problems he still hasn’t revealed to Jules, behind. He’d tried to convince his wealthy father to bail him out and things might have changed had his father agreed to go with him to the bank that morning, but he hadn’t so David kept walking into the sea. 

Two years later, David and Jules’s daughter Rennie blames herself for her father’s death. If only I’d been nicer that morning, she thinks. His best friend Charlie who arrived twenty minutes late to meet David on the shore blames himself too. If only I’d been there, he berates himself. Daniel, the young banker who called in David’s loans, also thinks he’s to blame so he quits his job and leaves the town and his family and wanders. If only I’d tried to give him more time, he ponders. Even Denise, the police detective who worked the case, thinks she mishandled it and wants to make amends. If only she’d paid more attention, she worries. 

All of them are dealing with the “if onlys” by taking different paths. At the center of them all, stands Jules, now an employee baking cupcakes at their former bakery that David’s father turned into a cupcake emporium after paying off the bakery loans. She hates the job since David’s father has also installed a bully as the other baker, a man watching her every move. That author Jane Ward has worked as a baker is evident in the realism of the scenes showing Jules working at a frenzied pace in the bakery and later in the cupcake store. She has no money and her stress at trying to cope with her losses leaves her only capable of half-listening to her daughter Rennie’s problems. She and all the characters in the novel are searching for ways to move past their guilt and grief and toward finding a way to forgive themselves. 

The joy of this page-turner you’ll want to read in a day is that author Jane Ward builds multi-dimensional characters that readers will care about. She makes you see yourself in each character as you consider how we all make mistakes and we all leave an aftermath of loss when we do so. The multiple points of view keep the story building in stair steps leading to a view of the tremendous impact that one man’s suicide has on so many.

Even the activities of the most minor characters are rendered with exquisite care as in Daniel’s interaction with his coworker’s son Josh at a marsh.

The grownups followed Josh’s outstretched arm as it pointed to the sky. In the stunted trees, the egrets were rousing themselves, shaking off their lethargy. Feathers ruffled and fluffed as, one by one, the birds unfolded themselves and stretched, all enormous wing spans and ungainly movement, and they pushed off their branches or stumps and took flight, rearranging their awkward bodies into streamlined torpedoes as massive wings beat against the air and propelled them into the sky. Soon the trees were empty, the birds gone without a trace.”

That section made me feel as if I were standing in that marsh as the egrets rose. It also reminded me of how quickly things can change. Just as the birds were gone without a trace, so had David vanished into the sea. It was now up to those left in the aftermath to shake off their lethargy and push off from their branches or stumps and take flight no matter how awkward it might feel for them to do so.

Summing it Up: In the Aftermath embeds the reader in the lives of the family, friends, and others connected to the sudden death of David Herron. The story will capture you on the first page and pull you along so speedily, you won’t want to set it down for even a minute. However, you will set it aside just long enough to look up so you too can ponder the “if onlys” and think about the difference you might make and who you might forgive—even if it’s yourself. You’ll read In the Aftermath quickly, but you’ll spend a long time afterward thinking about the lives of the characters so intimately touched by such a deep and unexpected loss. 

Kirkus Reviews awarded it a coveted star and Foreword called it “a masterful novel.”

Rating: 5 stars

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

Publication Date: September 21, 2021

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Kirkus Reviews, starred review:

“Jane Ward’s In the Aftermath is a big-hearted, relationship-rich page-turner that will leave you thinking deeply about resilience, intimacy, family, loyalty, and truth.”  — Kristin Bair, author of Agatha Arch Is Afraid of Everything

Tuesday, September 7, 2021

Three Girls from Bronzeville: A Uniquely American Memoir of Race, Fate, and Sisterhood by Dawn Turner

The title of Dawn Turner’s exquisite Three Girls from Bronzeville sets the stage for the reader. We immediately know that we’ll meet three girls and most of us from Chicago can picture those girls in Bronzeville, a section of the city south of downtown where the Black migration established a distinct community. For those who don’t know about Bronzeville, Turner shares that it was the home of Richard Wright, Gwendolyn Brooks, cardiac surgeon Daniel Hale Williams, Louie Armstrong, and Ida B. Wells. 

Turner embeds the reader into 1970s Bronzeville when she and the other two girls were young—showing the reader a place that redlining and disinvestment kept economically challenged despite its desirable location. She also shows us the region in earlier times when her mother, aunt, and grandmother were also three girls from Bronzeville. This is both a chronicle of the community and a compelling character study of three unique girls growing up in it. What sets this book apart from other memoirs set in disenfranchised places is Turner’s ability to place the reader in her life and that of the other two girls. Turner’s detailed observations coupled with her open-hearted sharing of her own story make the book both intimate and genuine. 

The opening lines establish the connection with the author: 

“I often think about my sister and my best friend. Not every minute. Not even every day. I mostly think about them when I am experiencing something I would have wanted to share. Some moment that would allow us to tug on a line, thin as a filament, that begins “Remember when . . .” and draws a seemingly ever-present past nearer.” 

When the book begins, we see Dawn Turner’s younger sister Kim following nine-year-old Dawn and her new best friend Debra. Both their families have recently moved into a privately owned apartment complex that’s just a chain-link fence away from the Ida B. Wells Homes, a deteriorating public housing project. The girls are inseparable and we get to know them as they go to school and play together every day afterward. That we know these little girls so well, makes watching the different paths they follow real to us. When Dawn is admitted to Hyde Park High School where she also takes classes at the University of Chicago, we can see that she may be leaving the other girls behind. 

Most descriptions of the book will tell you that Kim died at age 24 and Debra was addicted to drugs and incarcerated while Dawn became a successful journalist, novelist, and Nieman Fellow. Those are facts. Three Girls from Bronzeville invites the reader into the truth beyond the facts.

It’s more important for readers to know that this book is what it tells us it is: “a story of second chances. Who gets them, who doesn’t, who makes the most of them.” Read Three Girls from Bronzeville to feel what getting or not getting second chances can mean to both the community at large and to those who do or don’t get them.

Summing it Up: This memoir of growing up on the south side of Chicago shows the power of believing in second chances and forgiveness. It reads like a compelling novel especially when the author reconnects with her imprisoned friend Debra and examines her own life. It combines the author’s meticulous reporting skills with her desire to find the truth. Rarely does a memoir capture the characters in the writer’s life as well as Turner does in Three Girls from Bronzeville. Read this poignant, powerful, inspiring memoir and select it for your book club to ponder.

Appearances: Dawn Turner will open the Printers Row Lit Fest in a conversation about Three Girls from Bronzeville at 10 a.m. Sept. 11 in Chicago’s South Loop.

Dawn Turner will also participate in the Harbor Springs Festival of the Book on September 25. She will appear in two panel discussions: “Subverting Stereotypes'' at 10:30 a.m. and “Reclaiming a Life” at 3:30 p.m. FYI: I’ll be moderating a session titled “Making the Midwest Universal'' at 9:00 a.m. Festival registration is waitlisted at this time.

A Note: If you love this memoir as I did, you might want to read a spectacular novel that’s also set in Bronzeville and other areas of Chicago’s south side. Saving Ruby King by Catherine Adel West is a testament to friendship, secrets, and family.

Rating: 5 stars 

Category: Five Stars, Grandma’s Pot Roast, Nonfiction, Soul Food, Super Nutrition, Book Club

Publication Date: September 7, 2021

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Sunday, August 22, 2021

The Guide by Peter Heller

Peter Heller’s The Guide brings back Jack, one of the memorable protagonists in Heller’s magnificent 2019 adventure tale The River. When you love a book as much as I loved The River, it’s dangerous to step into the author’s next title especially when it features a character like Jack. The two novels are quite different, yet both rely on Heller’s gift for making nature come alive. 

It’s three years after Jack’s harrowing journey on the river in Canada and he’s still grieving both his mother’s earlier death and what occurred when he was in Canada. No spoilers: just promise me that if you haven’t read The River that you’ll read it before reading The Guide. 

Jack has taken a job as a fishing guide at Kingfisher Lodge, an exclusive Colorado resort where privacy is valued more than catching elusive trout. It’s after the initial Covid pandemic and the appearance of new variants and there’s fear of the after effects which may explain why some guests don’t mingle. Soon after arriving, Jack learns that a few guests don’t fish, that the resort’s neighbor shoots at anyone coming close to his land, that only a few are allowed to drive on resort property, and that all gates are locked from the inside as well as the outside. 

Jack is assigned as Alison K.’s guide. He knows she’s famous, but it isn’t until he hears her voice that he realizes that she’s a super star. She’s older than he is and is smart, kind, and tough. She’s a highly skilled angler and she and Jack fall into a pleasant routine when they fish that soon evolves into a romance. After the neighbor shoots at Jack, he and Alison begin investigating to see what the other guests are doing and why there’s such secrecy at the resort. It would ruin the suspense to give any clues to what they find, but it does provide a clever way to show the power of privilege and money. 

Heller’s descriptive passages are magnificent and he makes you feel as if you are casting with Alison and Jack. I haven’t fished since I was a kid, but I loved every scene on the river. His words put you in the water.

He was almost under the bridge when he raised the rod high and brought the exhausted trout in the last few feet and unshucked the net from his belt and slid it under this beauty and cradled her in the mesh. She was a species of gold that no jeweler had ever encountered—­deeper, darker, rich with tones that had depth like water. He talked to her the whole time, You’re all right, you’re all right, thank you, you beauty, almost as he had talked to himself at the shack, and he wet his left hand and cupped her belly gently and slipped the barbless hook from her lip and withdrew the net.

He crouched with the ice water to his hips and held her quietly into the current until half his body was numb. Held and held her who knew how long and watched her gills work, and she mostly floated free between his guiding fingers, and he felt the pulsing touch of her flanks as her tail worked and she idled. And then she wriggled hard and darted and he lost her shape to the green shadows of the stones.”

I found the romance between Jack and Alison less satisfying than the rest of the novel. It did not, however, detract from my overall enjoyment of the book. Heller’s pacing and the way he portrays evil make for an intriguing suspense novel that’s an engaging tale of what could happen “if.”

Summing It Up: Read The Guide to savor Heller’s phenomenal descriptions of fishing and of the magnificent natural beauty of the Colorado resort area depicted in the novel. Select it for your book club so you can discuss how money, power, and privilege can corrupt and endanger our world. Savor it for the menacing story of what could happen that will leave you breathless.

Note: I have a minor quibble with the novel’s use of the word fisher. I understand Heller not wanting to use fisherman, but I’d have preferred angler as it seems less contrived. Since the novel featured fly fishing, I feel the term angler would have worked better than the word fisher.

Rating: 4 Stars

Category: Fiction, Grandma’s Pot Roast, Mysteries and Suspense, Super Nutrition, Book Club

Publication Date: August 24, 2021

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Publishers Weekly: 

“Heller presents another brilliantly paced, unnerving wilderness thriller paired with an absorbing depiction of a remote natural paradise. … Masterful evocations of nature are not surprising, given Heller’s award-winning nonfiction about his own outdoor experiences, while his ability to inject shocking menace into a novel that might otherwise serve as a lyrical paean to nature is remarkable.”  –Booklist, starred.


Tuesday, July 13, 2021

All the Lonely People by Mike Gayle


Hubert Bird is a reclusive, retired, octogenarian, Jamaican immigrant who’s lived in London the majority of his life, A long-time widower, he misses his beloved wife and his daughter Rose who moved to Australia several years previously. What he doesn’t miss is the racism he faced when he arrived in London and when he married Joyce and her family disowned her because he was black. 

In weekly calls with Rose, Hubert describes a fantasy life of friendships and activities so she won’t worry about him. With her impending visit, Hubert doesn’t know what he’ll do about his deception when new neighbor Ashleigh and her baby appear at his door and won’t take no for an answer.

The book’s premise is similar to that of A Man Called Ove, but Hubert is less irascible and his story is more hopeful despite it not being easy. It’s a sentimental novel but it’s not sappy. I didn’t adore the too tidy ending, but most readers will. 

The book was inspired by author Mike Gayle’s parents’ immigration from Jamaica to London and it reflects their lives with genuine details that make the reader feel how their son cares about their experiences.  Gayle shows his characters in humorous, sad, lonely, and joyful times that made this reader know and care about them. All the Lonely People is a celebration of friendship and of everyday, ordinary people who make a difference. 

Summing It Up: Read All the Lonely People for a feel-good summer read that offers a clever take on intergenerational friendship, race, aging, loneliness, and waking up to life. The characters are engaging and the book belongs in every beach bag. 

Rating: 4 stars

Category: Fiction, Grandma’s Pot Roast, Sweet Bean Paste, Book Club

Publication Date: July 13, 2021

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Interview with the Author:

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Publishers Weekly:

Yorkshire Magazine: 

"With a winning main character, this absolutely heartwarming story unfolds with just enough surprises and heft to keep readers engaged. A natural choice for fans of Helen Simonson's Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand or any of the myriad recent books about cranky men finding late-in-life joy."―Booklist

Saturday, July 3, 2021

What a Wonderful World This Could Be by Lee Zacharias


Sometimes, you need to look at others to see yourself. Today, many of us are so certain of our beliefs that we become frozen and incapable of growth. Reading allows us to look into the past and see who we are. What a Wonderful World This Could Be once again showcases author Lee Zacharias’s talents as a writer who “sees” to focus on people who believe so strongly in an ideology that their rigidity casts them adrift. The novel opens in 1982 when Alex, a photographer and professor at a Virginia school, hears her husband Ted’s name on the TV news as she’s leaving the local YMCA after her morning swim. She hasn’t heard from Ted in eleven years and hasn’t known if he was alive since he disappeared. Now she learns that he’s in critical condition after having been shot while turning himself in to authorities. Ted’s reappearance forces Alex to revisit her life and confront her current situation. 

Alex’s single mother, an emotionally distant, uncaring artist and professor at a Midwestern university, paid little attention to Alex and allowed her too much freedom as a child. Alex didn’t learn who her father was until she was ten and he then showed very little interest in her. She sought and found connection at age fifteen when she fell in love with Steve, a 27-year-old photographer working in her mother’s department at the university. From Steve she learned to see both as a budding photographer and as a person. 

Two years later in 1964, she fell for Ted, an activist involved in the Mississippi civil rights struggles and the peace movement. Ted and Alex joined a local group and lived together in a commune-like arrangement that gave Alex a semblance of belonging. When the group was enveloped by radical Weatherman followers and the government charged Ted with a crime, he disappeared and Alex was once again adrift.

While using the lens of her writing, Zacharias hones her eye on the different aspects of the civil rights, peace, and justice movements of the 1960s and how lack of focus on humanity made it possible to avoid connections and sacrifice people for the sake of an ideology. Alex is a metaphor for seeing but not connecting the dots to mature into a fully functional adult. 

Summing It Up: Readers wanting to learn more about the 1960s will find no better guide to the times and the people. Zacharias’s use of a fictional school, based on Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana rings true for the time, place, and people populating it. Her photographic eye captures her characters as they choose whether to see what’s around them or hide in frozen ideas. 

Rating: 4 Stars

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

Publication Date: June 1, 2021

Author Website: 

Interviews with the Author: 

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Historical Novel Society:

Walter Magazine: 

Friday, April 30, 2021

Books to Give for Mother's Day

Once again, Mother's Day will be upon us and here's a list of fabulous books your mother would love to unwrap while you treat her to brunch. While staying home during the pandemic, I've read fifty-one books since December, 2020 and the ones listed below were among my favorites. I'm certain that there are several on this list that your mother will enjoy. I'm also fairly sure that you'll find a few that fit your particular hunger for a good book. Here they are in alphabetical order by title.

For your mother or for anyone who’s survived the last year and wants to make sense of it while devouring a great story:

Becoming Duchess Goldblatt by Anonymous is spectacular and unique. Based on a Twitter account written by an anonymous writer, it reveals how the woman builds her life out of profound disappointment. While it’s the memoir of a fictional woman, it’s primarily a pondering on the meaning of life. It shows how starting over can be beautiful even when painful and heartbreaking. It’s sardonic, sweet, profound, and charming without being trite. Vulnerability personified. “When someone you love dies, you lose them in pieces over time, but you also get them back in pieces: little fragments of memory come rushing back through what they cared about, what brought them joy. If you’re lucky, you get little pieces back for the rest of your life.” It just came out in paperback so you can wrap it as a gift for the beach. GPR/S/SF (2020)

For the reader who wants a happy book with heft and humor:

Early Morning Riser by Katherine Heiny has all the quirkiness, heart, and insight of an Anne Tyler novel. Toss in humor, music, kindness, and small-town sensibility and it’s a winner. Jane is 26 and has moved to Boyne City, Michigan to teach second grade. She and Duncan, a furniture restorer and locksmith, fall in love within seconds of meeting. She soon learns that he’s been with almost every woman within fifty miles, but it doesn’t matter. His helper Jimmy, his ex-wife and her bizarre husband, and their friends become family and we readers get to enjoy the hilarity, tenderness, and contentment. D/GPR/S, BC Her 2017 debut novel Standard Deviation is also a winner.

While this is officially a Young Adult novel, it’s for everyone looking for a great story and an outstanding glimpse of native culture:

Firekeeper’s Daughter by Angeline Boulley is a captivating mystery that embeds the reader into the Ojibwe world of Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan and Ontario and Sugar Island. Daunis’s deceased father was an Ojibwe hockey player and her mother is from a wealthy, influential white family. She’s just finished high school and instead of following her dream of studying premed at the University of Michigan, she’s staying home after the death of her uncle and her grandmother’s stroke to be with her mother. She can’t avoid the meth crisis that’s hit her community and taken the lives of people she loves. The mystery is phenomenal, but it’s the view of native culture and the issues facing her tribe that make this special. DC/SN  Ages 14 and up

For the mom or aunt who can’t get enough of historical fiction especially when it’s set in the Channel Islands in World War II:

The Girl from the Channel Islands by Jenny LeCoat is based on a true story set in British Jersey under the German occupation from 1940 to 1945. For Hedy, who’s Jewish, the occupation means she may be deported, but she becomes a translator for the Germans and secretly works against them. When she falls in love with a German officer, her survival is even trickier. This fine tale of love and sacrifice is an engaging and meaningful read. GPR/SBP/SN, BC

For the mother who loves fine literature and history:

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell is a devastatingly beautiful novel of grief, love, marriage, and resilience. Based on the life of Shakespeare, his wife Agnes, and their children including their son Hamnet, the novel makes the reader slow down to fully grasp Agnes’s singular life and her love for her children. We know that losing a child is unbearable; Hamnet makes us feel the loss completely. When you read Hamnet, you are in England in the 1580s as the plague envelopes the land. Yes, you do want to read a novel set in a distant plague this year. G/SN/SBP, BC (2020)


For the mother who wants a “feel-good” novel that’s simply brilliant:

The Midnight Library by Matt Haig is a sweet, but not cloying, novel about learning how to live your own authentic life without regrets. The book is based on the fantasy that “between life and death there is a library.” Because of this, Nora can make right everything she regrets about her sad life. “Every book provides a chance to try another life you could have lived.” Mrs. Elm, the kind librarian, guides Nora on her journey, but only Nora can find her path. Read it to celebrate living the life you’re meant to live. It’s perfect for the pandemic. GPR/D/SBP, BC (2020)

For the mom who likes a touch of romance and mystery:

The Newcomer by Mary Kay Andrews is a rom-com with a touch of mystery. It’s a plot-driven romp packed with colorful characters set in an aging Florida, gulf coast motel where snowbirds return every winter. When 33-year-old Letty arrives with her four-year-old niece Maya in tow, the motel owner’s cop son wonders why. Are Letty and Maya safe from the person who killed Maya’s mom and will he find them there? It’s just the predictable book a beach requires. D/GS 5.4.21


For the mother or reader who likes to slowly devour a novel that offers multiple layers of history, culture, and nuance:

The Removed by Brandon Hobson is a spectacular look at the way the removal of the Cherokee from their homeland in 1838 is reflected in interactions today. The Echota family is planning their annual gathering commemorating the death of their son Ray-Ray by a cop who heard gunshots and fired at the “Indian kid.” The use of Cherokee myths and history and the integration of birds to illuminate and foreshadow the action is magnificent. The characters are memorable and the “Darkening Land” is eerie, wryly portrayed, and omniscient. Read this slowly and carefully to unveil all its layers and to grasp the hope-filled ending. Watch one of the many great interviews with the author to gain even more insight into this incredible book. G/SF/SN, BC

For the mother who adores the Maisie Dobbs series or who enjoys a fine memoir:

This Time Next Year We’ll Be Laughing by Jacqueline Winspear is the memoir of the author of the Maisie Dobbs series that showcases her childhood of rural poverty, love, and hard work. It explains why Maisie feels so real and endearing. Read it to feel Winspear’s resilience and to share her life. If you’re considering writing your life story, it would be one fine guide. GPR/SBP/SF (2020)


For the mother or any reader who likes a perfectly written mystery with humor and characters of a certain age who aren’t treated like bumbling stereotypes:

The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman is a dry British mystery filled with humor and friendship. Four clever friends living in an affluent retirement village meet weekly to examine unsolved crimes and suddenly they find themselves involved in a local murder. These wry, engaging pals will make you want to move to Coopers Chase. Elizabeth and Joyce are particularly delightful and complex. All the characters including the police and the criminals are smart, funny, clever, and charming. Osman, a well-known British TV personality, nails this cozy debut. D/S/SBP, BC (2020)


In addition to these, three novels I reviewed earlier this year would make great gifts: Klara and the Sun, Mother May I, and The Paris Library. Click on each title for the full review.