Wednesday, December 1, 2021

The Annual List—2021 Edition

Last year at this time, I felt like I was living in a cocoon. I had spent much of that previous year reading books that helped me prepare to emerge from the cocoon or that allowed me to escape the fears and grief the virus brought. A year ago, I anticipated spending much of the coming winter reading and catching up on the movies and television series my friends were recommending. What I didn’t expect was my inability to concentrate on anything on the screen other than college basketball. I found that even the most highly recommended shows couldn’t distract me. Only one (thank you, Ted Lasso) captivated me enough to take me away from the worries of the world. So, I read more books. I usually read around 100 books a year. This past year I read more than 130. I found that I could completely immerse myself in a book and emerge energized to face the world. I hope that one or more of the books on this list will be just what you want and need to find respite or challenge. 

One word of advice: Books that are the perfect fit for one person don’t always fit another. If you aren’t enjoying a book, move on. There are plenty of great titles awaiting you. The lists of my favorite titles within each genre will appear later this December. 

The photo is of a library in Görlitz, Germany. It entrances me as it feels like a metaphor for entering the world that books hold open for us.

Hungry for Good Books? Annual Book List, 2021

©Copyright December 1, 2021, by Trina Hayes

Letters after each selection designate the book as CC: Chinese Carryout (page-turners, great for plane rides), D: Desserts (delightful indulgences), DC: Diet Coke and Gummi Bears (books for teens and young adults), G: Gourmet (exquisite writing, requires concentration), GPR: Grandma’s Pot Roast (books that get your attention and stick with you), GS: Grits (evocative of the American south), OC: Over Cooked (good ingredients, but overwritten), PBJ: Peanut Butter and Jelly (children’s books adults will like), PP: Pigeon Pie (historical fiction, parts or all of the novel set at least 50 years ago),  R: Road Food (audio books for road trips and more), S: Sushi with Green Tea Sorbet (satire, irony, black humor, acquired taste), SBP: Sweet Bean Paste (translated and international books), SF: Soul Food (spirituality, theology, books for your soul), SN: Super Nutrition (lots of information, yet tasty as fresh blueberries), and T: Tapas (small bites including short stories, novellas, essays, and poetry). The letters BC denote books for book clubs.  Asterisks (*) depict the most outstanding titles in each designation. The plus sign (+) is for books I recommend. The number sign (#) is for books with full reviews on my blog. All books listed were published in 2021 unless noted otherwise.

General Fiction and Poetry

*Achebe, Chinua, Things Fall Apart, the classic of African literature, is a universal tale of power, patriarchy, colonialism, religious fervor, and pride. I read this in 1997 (thank you, notes on the inside cover) and was grateful my book club chose it as I think I could reread it every year and find something new. Set in the late 1800s in Nigeria when British colonization began, it tells of Okonkwu, a respected tribal elder, and the traditions of his clan and village. The last paragraph is one of the most meaningful in literature for me. Over twenty women in my book club were glad they read it too. G/PP/SBP/SN (1958)

+Airgood, Ellen, Tin Camp Road is a joy-filled tale of single mother Laurel’s vulnerable life with her precocious, artistic, wise daughter Skye in a tiny town in the northern woods near Lake Superior in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Living life on the edge makes Laurel worry, yet finding happiness is always her goal. This page-turner makes poverty real and turns surmounting it into balm for the soul. GPR, BC 

*Akhtar, Ayad, Homeland Elegies is an amazing work of autobiographical fiction. Ayad, the character, like the author, was born in New York to Pakistani parents and raised in Wisconsin where his father was a successful physician. He wrote a Pulitzer-winning play and now struggles with feeling “other” as his parents also wrestle with identity. This book brilliantly explores what it means to be American, especially today. Great for book clubs. G/SN, BC (2020)

Alam, Ruman, Leave the World Behind, The writing and language are exquisite and I love Alam’s expertise in always using the right word in every situation, but I didn’t find the story horrifying, and other than Rose, I didn’t care if the rest of the family survived. Alam shows that in a catastrophe that could end civilization, we’re inclined to do nothing. It’s human nature, but it didn’t feel chilling. The casual racism toward the homeowners felt true but sadly, not unique. The flat affect expressed the characters’ passivity but didn’t capture me. S (2020)

+Andrews, Mary Kay, The Newcomer 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? Just the predictable book a beach requires. D/GS 

+Andrews, Mary Kay, The Santa Suit, After Ivy’s divorce, she decides to leave the city and buys a rural farmhouse online. It’s a mess and she has to clean it out so she can make needed repairs. She finds a Santa suit and a note in the pocket that forces her to leave her cocoon and meet her fellow townspeople. This charming, short novel is packed with Christmas cheer. It isn’t easy to make a feel-good book realistic, but Andrews makes it work. D/GPR/T

*Anonymous, Becoming Duchess Goldblatt, see Nonfiction for a phenomenal memoir that blends fiction and nonfiction.

+Austin, Emily, Everyone in This Room Will Someday Be Dead is a wry, unique story about Gilda, a damaged young woman with debilitating anxiety. She’s an atheist and a lesbian who takes a job as a receptionist in a Catholic Church. It’s clever and the characters are well-drawn. S

+Beha, Christopher, The Index of Self-Destructive Acts begins when Sam moves to New York City to write for the Interviewer and portrays disgraced political columnist Frank Doyle and falls under the spell of the Doyle family. This big novel covers baseball, finance, faith, indiscretion, and several self-destructive acts. Great writing. It was long-listed for the National Book Award. G, BC

+#Benjamin, Melanie, The Children’s Blizzard evokes the 1888 blizzard that swept across the Great Plains taking the lives of 235 children, some only steps from home. The novel focuses on Raina, a new young teacher, and her sister Gerda, teaching in a school a three-day ride away as they attempt to help their pupils survive the coming blizzard. It’s a compelling portrait of families eking out a living as homesteaders and it’s filled with unique characters like the journalist who made the survivors famous and whose words prodded many to settle there. GPR/PP/SN, BC 

*Boulley, Angeline, Firekeeper’s Daughter, see Young Adult for a captivating thriller that embeds the reader in the Objibe culture. Adults adore this novel as well as teens.

Bowen, Rhys, The Venice Sketchbook is a plot-driven tale set primarily in 1938 when Juliet, an English art teacher, travels to Venice with her students and rekindles her romance with nobleman Leonardo Da Rossi as war threatens. In 2001, Juliet’s great-niece Caroline visits Venice with Juliet’s legacy—her sketchbook, two keys, and her ashes. While trite, it evokes Venice well. CC/PP

*Butler, Nickolas, Godspeed is a tension-filled, fast-as-a-bullet tale of three builders hired to finish building a mansion in the mountains near Jackson Hole within an impossible timeline. The unique personalities of the three men contribute to the ways they cope including drug use. It’s a rip-roaring story that examines greed, fear, and power. GPR, BC

+Carofiglio, Gianrico, Three O’Clock in the Morning follows a father and his 18-year-old son Antonio as they spend 48 hours walking in 1983 Marseilles as they try to keep Antonio awake to see if his epilepsy is cured. In Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night, a scene in Marseilles notes: “In a real dark night of the soul it is always three o’clock in the morning.” A poignant, lovely book. G/SBP, BC

*#Charles, Janet S., The Paris Library focuses on the role of the American Library in Paris from 1939 to 1944. Odile accompanied her aunt to the library as a child and now works at her dream job there. She falls in love with Paul, a kind policeman, and forms a close friendship with Margaret, a British library volunteer. The book explores the lives of several library patrons based on actual historical figures. The novel follows Odile to 1980s Montana where she befriends Lily, a neighbor girl, whose mother is ill. This lovely novel celebrates friendship while noting the effect of betrayals. A Francophile and bibliophile treat! GPR/PP/SN, BC 

*Clancy, Christina, The Second Home is a wise, poignant, warm-hearted view of being a family. Every summer the Gordon family including teens Ann and Poppy depart Milwaukee for their family cottage on Cape Cod. This year, their recently adopted teen son Michael joins them. Suddenly everything changes; Ann is pregnant and Michael disappears. Fifteen years later, their parents have died, Michael hasn’t resurfaced, and Poppy is on the other side of the world when Ann returns to the Cape to sell the cottage. This novel made me think about what I believe which isn’t necessarily true and how my beliefs color my actions. Can’t believe this page-turner is a debut outing. GPR, BC (2020)

+Clancy, Christina, Shoulder Season opens in 2019 when Sherri is working at the Palm Springs Art Museum and receives an email from her old friend Jerry from East Troy, Wisconsin where she grew up. Back in East Troy in 1981, we see young Sherri after both her parents have died when she gets a job as a Playboy bunny at the nearby Lake Geneva resort. Clancy captures the era, small-town life, and the young women and their choices perfectly. GPR, BC

+Davidson, Ash, Damnation Spring is a big family saga that will make you care about Rich, Colleen, and their young son, Chub. Taking place in 1977 in California’s coastal redwood forest area, logging is all the family and their neighbors know. When Collen’s miscarriages and stillbirths and the birth defects she’s seen recently as a midwife begin to point to the logging company’s herbicide spraying, people fear as much for their livelihood as for their children. Lots to take in, but the best of this novel is that it makes the love of an ordinary, working-class family real. Pitch-perfect dialogue makes it sing. GPR/SN, BC

+Dell’Antonia, KJ, The Chicken Sisters is a delectable dessert of a novel featuring two sisters and two fried chicken restaurants in a small Kansas town. Mae, a Marie Kondo-type organizer, just lost her gig on TV. Her sister Amanda had arranged for the reality show Food Wars to film the two restaurants and declare one a winner. The restaurants began as one in 1886, but Frannie’s broke away a few years later and is now run by Amanda and her mother-in-law while Mimi’s, the original chicken shack, is run by Mae’s mother. With Mae’s big-city tactics assisting Mimi’s, the feud grows. It’s an improbable but deliciously satisfying and tasty read that belongs in a beach bag. D, BC (2020)

*Gaige, Amity, Sea Wife is the story of a marriage between opposites. It’s also a thriller of a sea journey. Juliet is a poet who can’t finish her dissertation and her depression frightens her husband Michael. Michael is a pragmatic businessman, but his dream is to quit his job, buy a sailboat, and take his family on a year-long voyage. Juliet has misgivings and her kids are only two and seven, but she agrees. Gaige portrays anger, love, fear, and survival with engaging clarity. It’s a class in writing and sailing. G/SN, BC (2020)

+#Gayle, Mike, All the Lonely People, Hubert Bird is a retired, reclusive octogenarian widower. A Jamaican immigrant, he misses his beloved wife and his daughter Rose who moved to Australia years previously. He doesn’t miss the racism that followed him when he moved to London and when he married Joyce and her family disowned her because he was black. In weekly calls with his daughter, Hubert describes a fantasy life of friendships and activities. With Rose coming for a visit, Hubert doesn’t know what to do when new neighbor Ashleigh knocks on his door and won’t take no for an answer. The premise is similar to that of A Man Called Ove, but Hubert is less irascible and the story more one of hope. It’s sentimental in a good way. GPR/SBP, BC

+Graff, Andrew J., Raft of Stars takes the reader through deep woods and down a roaring river with two boys in 1994 when they run away after one shoots and kills the other’s evil father. An inept crew tries to find them before the elements, hunger, or rapids get them. The endearing characters and fine descriptive passages redeem the predictable plot in this uneven debut. GPR

+Greenidge, Katilyn, Libertie is a free-born Black woman living with her light-skinned mother, a doctor, in post-Civil War Brooklyn. Libertie is expected to become a doctor like her mother, but white women won’t let her touch them while allowing her mother to do so. Libertie fails in college then marries Emmanuel, her mother’s student, and moves to Haiti with him. Colorism, island mysticism, and Emmanuel’s family’s secrets complicate their lives in this lyrical, thoughtful, and brilliant novel. G/PP/SN, BC

+Haig, Matt, The Midnight Library is a sweet, but not cloying, novel about learning how to live your own authentic life. The book is based on the fantasy that “between life and death there is a library.” Because of this, troubled 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 this to celebrate living the life you’re meant to live. It’s perfect for the pandemic. Trigger warning: the main character contemplates suicide. GPR/D/SBP, BC (2020)

Hannah, Kristin, The Four Winds feels like a melodramatic beach read. Elsa, a one-dimensional, brave, sacrificial mother, takes her children from the deprivation of the dust bowl to unexpected horrific conditions in the cotton-picking camps in California. The first half of the book works and the novel is meant to tug at heartstrings, but the characters are flat and their dialogue so bland that even death feels uneventful. I loved The Nightingale, but this novel doesn’t sing. CC/PP

*Harjo, Joy, An American Sunrise is a compilation of Native American and U.S. Poet Laureate Harjo’s extraordinary poetry. Listen to this one because hearing Harjo read embeds the poems in your soul. G/RT/T (2019)

*Heiny, Katherine, Early Morning Riser 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 readers get to enjoy the resulting hilarity, tenderness, and contentment. D/GPR/S, BC

+Heiny, Katherine, Standard Deviation affords a wry look at marriage, relationships, and parenting. Graham left Elspeth to marry Audra, a chatty, overly generous woman who befriends strangers and makes them houseguests. Their son Matthew, diagnosed as having Asperger syndrome, has trouble making friends. Graham wonders how things might have been different then realizes that life forces you to cope and to love the people in it “right now, right in this instant.” It’s a quiet charmer. D/GPR/S, BC (2017)

+#Heller, Peter, The Guide, see Mysteries and Thrillers for a suspense-filled adventure at a high-end fishing resort.

+Hilderbrand, Elin, Winter Street is the first in the series of delectable Christmas confections involving the Quinn family on Nantucket at the Winter Street Inn. Inn owner Kelley Quinn and his four adult children all face problems, but Christmas offers hope, romance, and humor. D (2014)

*Hobson, Brandon, The Removed is a spectacular look at the way the removal of the Cherokee from their homeland in 1838 is reflected in life 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 then find a friend or book club so you can discuss it. G/PP/SF/SN, BC

*#Hunt, Laird, Zorrie is the stunning portrayal of one woman’s life lived in small towns in central Indiana. After the death of the aunt who took her in when her parents died, Zorrie found work in a radium watch factory in Illinois. Homesick, she returned to Indiana and married a farmer who then died in WWII. Hunt captures the essence of American life in 161 quiet, grace-filled pages. Reminiscent of the novels of Marilynne Robinson and Reynolds Price, Zorrie is a National Book Award finalist. I grew up within thirty miles of the book’s setting and Holy Toledo does it ring true. The Midwest is universal in this sure-to-be classic. G/PP/SN, BC

*#Ishiguru, Kazuo, Klara and the Sun features Klara, an artificial friend, purchased as the companion for an ailing girl. Klara is observant, empathetic, and loving—not what literature usually depicts as characteristics of nonhumans. Klara, like her fellow AFs, needs the sun for nourishment so she is literally filled with light. It’s the metaphor of light as love that makes this novel exceptional. That the successful students in this future world study virtually in their homes feels prescient of our current malaise, but what the novel illuminates is that our devices make isolation inevitable. Ishiguro explores our disconnected world by showing that an outsider can exemplify perfect love. His Nobel laureate chops are on display in this masterpiece. G/S/SBP, BC

+#Jackson, Joshilyn, Mother May I is a thriller of a novel with a pace that will leave you breathless. As Bree watches her daughters in a school play practice, someone reaches behind her and kidnaps her sweet baby boy. She follows the kidnapper’s demands and gets tied up in a murder that may involve her husband. Jackson is a master at capturing privilege, injustice, and cluelessness. I’d love to discuss this. Warning: This isn’t for the squeamish. GPR, BC

+Johnson, Julia Claiborne, Better Luck Next Time is a witty glimpse of the wealthy women who escape to a Reno ranch in 1938 to establish residency so they can divorce. Observing the women and the people waiting on them is 24-year-old Ward who spent a year at Yale before his family lost everything in the Depression. He gets close to Nina, an heiress and pilot returning to settle her third divorce, and has a romance with Emily who’s driven herself from San Francisco to escape her philandering husband. It’s a chocolate sundae of a tale about friendship, marriage, family, and second chances. Perfect title! D/PP/S

*Johnson, Jocelyn Nicole, My Monticello opens with several searing and fabulous stories that set you up for the brilliant title novella set in the near future. A diverse group of neighbors escapes a mob of white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia and hides out in Jefferson’s Monticello estate. One of them and her grandmother are descendants of Sally Hemings. Seeing the effects of climate change and the growth of predatory groups feels so real it will make you quake. “They believed their security depended on making sure we never felt safe, not even in our own bodies.” So much to discuss! G/GPR/SN, BC

+Johnson, Nancy, The Kindest Lie weaves a propulsive tale of 31-year-old Ruth, a Black Chicago engineer. It’s 2008, Obama’s just been elected and Ruth and her husband are thinking about having kids when past secrets invade Ruth. She returns to her hometown seeking answers and befriends a young white boy. This debut reads like the best of Jodi Picoult as Johnson showcases justice while telling an intriguing story that keeps you turning pages and thinking about the difficulty of forgiveness. CC/GPR, BC

+Kidd, Sue Monk, The Book of Longings tells the story of the life of Jesus through the eyes of Ana, his imagined wife. That it’s possible that Jesus would have married, feels real because Kidd uses historical information to bolster the story. The first section feels a touch too long, but the information about real communes and a discovered book will make you look at the gospels in new ways. It’s fascinating and my book club loved discussing it. GPR/PP/SF/SN, BC (2020)

+Lange, Tracey, We are the Brennans is a novel of secrets and the way they divide us. The Irish-American Brennan family and “almost son” Kale own a pub in New York. Their sister Sunday returns home after being hurt in an accident in which she got a DUI. Kale, her former boyfriend, is now married and has a child and no one is sure how Sunday’s return will change the family dynamics. Why had Sunday stayed away and who is out to hurt the family? This is a winner of a debut. GPR, BC

+LeCoat, Jenny, The Girl from the Channel Islands 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/PP/SBP/SN, BC

+Lemmie, Asha, Fifty Words for Rain, Noriko should be a princess. Born into Japanese nobility, she’s the illegitimate child of an African-American serviceman and her Japanese maternal grandparents ignore her existence. In 1948 when she’s eight, her mother leaves her with them and they banish her to an attic then send her to be trained as a geisha and sold to the highest bidder. Soon the older half-brother she didn’t know existed champions and protects her and we follow her life into the 1960s. This riveting, fast-paced look at history, prejudice, and survival offers a unique view of Japanese culture. GPR/PP/SN, BC

*Mackesy, Charlie, The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse is a magnificent graphic novel of kindness, love, and friendship. The art is evocative of simple times, leading the reader into an imaginary world where hurt is real, but love reigns. It’s similar to Winnie the Pooh and The Little Prince in that it offers wisdom for all ages. “Always remember you matter. You’re important and you are loved, and you bring to this world things no one else can.” GPR/SBP/SF/T (2019)

+May, Peter, The Night Gate, see Mysteries for a compelling mix of historical fiction with a World War II tale about protecting art from the Louvre combined with the current murder of a Parisian art critic.

*McBride, James, Deacon King Kong is a joy-filled look at a serious subject. The Deacon, a man usually referred to as Sportcoat, drinks too much as he grieves the loss of his wife Hettie. The Bronx projects in 1969 feature strong ties to the Black church although drugs threaten to ruin trust. When troubles call, sometimes you need to laugh. Fabulous characters abound. GPR/PP, BC (2020)

*McConaghy, Charlotte, Once There Were Wolves takes the reader to Scotland where Inti Flynn and a team of biologists are reintroducing wolves to a remote Highlands area. Inti and her twin sister Aggie have been hurt by the evil of humans and when death strikes, Inti’s instinct is to protect all she loves. It’s a rare combination of a beautifully descriptive, poetic novel, a primer on reforestation, and a suspense thriller. Book clubs will love it. G/GPR/SN, BC

+McDaniel, Tiffany, Betty is a Bildungsroman written like an Old Testament testimony. It’s the melancholy story of a girl who grew up in a troubled Appalachian family with a magical father and hidden abuse. It’s achingly beautiful but feels too long as the tragedies multiply. GPR/GS/OC (2020)

+Millet, Lydia, A Children’s Bible is part apocalyptic climate fiction and part commentary on our generational divide. Twelve children and their parents together rent a massive old lakeside summer home on the east coast. The parents in their fog of booze, sex, and drugs neglect the kids. A massive storm forces the kids to seek refuge as the world starts resembling the pictures in the Bible that Jack, Evie, the narrator’s sweet little brother, carries. An allegory with exquisite writing and dialogue that sets an eerie mood, it’s a contemporary Lord of the Flies that’s an unsettling, yet compulsive read. G/S, BC (2020)

+Norton, Graham, Home Stretch begins with a 1987 accident in Ireland that kills three passengers including a bride and groom the day before their wedding. Survivors Martin and Connor deal with the tragedy differently. Martin stays home, marries, and becomes a pillar of the community. Connor runs to New York to create a new life. Later, Connor confronts his past and realizes that forgiveness is the only way to heal. Great characters and twists elevate this above typical tales on the consequences of hiding secrets. GPR/SBP, BC

*O’Farrell, Maggie, Hamnet 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. You also feel the effects of misogyny. G/PP/SBP/SN, BC (2020)

*Osman, Richard, The Thursday Murder Club, see Mysteries, Suspense, and Thrillers for a wry British tale that’s filled with humor and friendship. 

*Philyaw, Deesha, The Secret Lives of Church Ladies is one of my favorite books. A National Book Award finalist, its nine stories explore the hidden, raw, and tender places where Black women find relief from having to be good all the time. The women range from a 14-year-old girl with a crush on the preacher’s wife to women of all ages seeking love, comfort, and God. This debut collection highlights the influence of the church for good or evil. I’m still thinking about Instructions for Married Christian Husbands. G/GS/S/T, BC (2020)

Picoult, Jodi, Wish You Were Here, The first half of the novel features a woman stranded on an island in the Galapagos when COVID hits. Her boyfriend is a doctor fighting the virus in a New York hospital. There’s a side story of a renamed Yoko Ono character and a famous painting she wants to sell that’s bizarre and doesn’t fit. The book is a page-turner, but that’s all it is. One character talks about the shortage of pantyhose in WWII, but pantyhose didn’t appear until the 1960s. Errors like that don’t inspire. CC

+Reid, Taylor Jenkins, Forever, Interrupted is Reid’s debut novel. Elsie and Ben fall in love at first sight, elope within six months, and don’t tell his family. Nine days later, Ben is killed while riding his bike and Elsie meets her mother-in-law, who doesn’t know she exists, in the ER. Interweaving stories of their romance and the complications arising after Ben’s death make for a sweet and poignant romance. CC (2013)

+Rowley, Steven, The Guncle, Patrick, once a famous sit-com star, now lives alone in Palm Springs. When his sister-in-law and best friend Sara dies, his brother Greg tells him that he’s become addicted to painkillers and needs to go into treatment and asks if Patrick will take care of his niece and nephew for the summer. Patrick resists but finally agrees. The kids call him GUP for Gay Uncle Patrick soon shortened to Guncle. Patrick and the kids work through their grief in tender, laugh-out-loud ways. The characters are delightful in this heartwarming romp that’s sure to brighten the darkest day. D/GPR, BC

+Ryan, Jennifer, The Kitchen Front celebrates friendship, women, and food. Set in the English countryside in the third year of World War II, it shows the resilience of women especially when they help each other. It’s a fast-paced, plot-driven narrative that readers looking for respite will devour. Sharing recipes created with the few ingredients available provides authenticity. CC/D/PP

+#Sealy, Jon, The Merciful seems like it will be a simple courtroom drama about a hit-and-run accident, but it’s much more. A girl on a bike dies and the man who hit her unknowingly drives off. As a reader, your questions aren’t about what happened as much as they are about “why?” and “what if?” This character-driven novel is perfect for book clubs. One single action, one moment---and everything changes. What would you do? GPR/GS, BC

+Shipman, Viola, The Clover Girls offers escape into a world of redeemed friendship. Liz, V, Rachel, and Emily were “friends forever” during four years of summer camp in the 80s. Now, they each receive a letter from Emily that beckons them back to northern Michigan to reconnect, forgive, and learn to love themselves. This feel-good romp with a touch of romance delivers. D/GPR, BC

+Stonich, Sarah, Fishing is a public TV fishing show in Minnesota. RayAnne is the temporary host and isn’t sure she’s up to the job. Her grandmother Dot, who lives in Florida, is RayAnne’s North Star as her parents have been emotionally in absentia since they divorced when she was twelve. Laugh-out-loud scenes lead to a poignant ending. The characters are beautifully real. GPR, BC (2015) 

*Stonich, Sarah, The Laurentian Divide is a stand-alone sequel to the glorious Vacationland. The people of Hatchet Inlet, Minnesota are fabulous characters. Alpo, a kind widower, is about to marry Sissy, one of the diner owners who’s much younger than he is and who’s also dealing with her mother’s disturbing, yet often humorous dementia. Alpo’s brilliant son, Pete, the local veterinarian, is newly sober and not always trusted to stay so. I love the people, the setting, and this novel. My book club adored it and so will yours. GPR, BC (2018)

+Stonich, Sarah, Reeling, the sequel to Fishing, sends RayAnne and her crewmate Cassi to New Zealand leaving the Minnesota winter and Hal, RayAnne’s new romantic interest, behind. RayAnne is dealing with her unexpected screen success and her grief over the loss of her grandmother. The people she interviews provide laughs and ways to deal with problems. GPR

+Stonich, Sarah, These Granite Islands affords a view of marriage, friendship, and aging that book clubs will love. It’s 1936 in a small Minnesota mining town and Isobel stays home with her daughter when husband Virgil takes their boys to an island for the summer. New resident Cathryn meets Isobel and a friendship develops until Isobel is put in a tough position. Years later, Isobel is hospitalized and reminisces with her now almost 70-year-old son. Fantastic descriptive passages make this debut sing. GPR/PP, BC (2001)

*Stonich, Sarah, Vacationland weaves the stories of the residents of Hatchet Inlet and the Naledi Lodge in northern Minnesota into a rich tapestry that every reader will love. Pay attention to the chapter titles as Separation, Reparation, Destination, and Assimilation lead to beginnings and endings that you’ll keep pondering long after you finish. Choose this for your book club. GPR, BC (2013)

*#Strout, Elizabeth, Oh, William! is quietly magnificent. In this stand-alone sequel to My Name is Lucy Barton, Lucy’s ex-husband William is reeling after his third wife leaves him and he learns of a family secret. He turns to Lucy and their journey underlies a restrained, yet compelling novel. G/GPR, BC

+Sweeney, Cynthia D’Aprix, Good Company ruminates on marriage, family, friendship, and self-awareness. Flora, Julian, and their daughter Ruby have a happy life and best friends Margot and David have become family. All but David are successful actors when a secret upends them. This wry, inviting novel makes you feel a part of the family—confused and wondering. D/GPR, BC

+Tarkington, Ed, The Fortunate Ones is narrated by Charlie, a poor kid admitted to a fancy private school in Nashville. While there he’s befriended by the well-connected and wealthy Arch and his family. Charlie becomes enthralled with what he yearns to have until he begins to question and leaves to find himself when he learns why he was so lucky. When Charlie returns to Nashville to be with his dying mother, Arch needs help in running for mayor. Fine writing and a touch of Gatsby make this soar. GPR/GS/PP

*Tevis, Walter, The Queen’s Gambit was a novel before it was a Netflix series. It tells the story of Beth Harmon who was sent to an orphanage where the children were force-fed tranquilizers to make them compliant. There she watched the custodian play chess and begged him to teach her. After her adoption by a troubled couple, she continued her obsession with chess and worked to become one of the world’s top players. Addiction, sexism, and adoption loom large. I listened to the remarkable audio version and highly recommend it. Michael Ondaatje rereads this often. GPR/RF/SN (1983)

*#Toews, Miriam, Fight Night is a rollicking, imaginative tale with two impossible-to-forget characters whose wry dialogue belies the difficulties they face. A Scotiabank-Giller Prize finalist, it’s narrated by 9-year-old Swiv who documents life with her outrageous 86-year-old Grandma Elvira as they live in the aftermath of suicide, religious patriarchy, and abuse. RF/S, BC

+Towles, Amor, The Lincoln Highway features charming characters, particularly the two brothers jumping aboard a freight train to reclaim their stolen car and find their mother. The escaped inmates who took the car in this 1950s adventure tale are also intriguing. I didn’t love the changing points of view and found them distracting.I also found the ending unsatisfying, but it’s still Amor Towles and he can weave one fine story. I wish I’d listened to the novel as I think it fits that mode better. GPR/RT

*#Ward, Jane, In the Aftermath, David and Jules own a bakery where Jules makes delightful confections. David doesn’t tell Jules that the bakery is in deep financial trouble and when he can’t secure a loan, he takes his own life. The novel follows Jules, their daughter, and David’s best friend as they deal with the aftermath of the suicide. You’ll love the characters and ponder the “if onlys” they ask themselves. It’s a masterful novel with a pace that moves quickly. GPR, BC

+Wiener, Meryl, Something to Talk About is a breezy, believable romance that celebrates falling in love. Jo is a big-name Hollywood writer and showrunner and Emma is her assistant. When Jo takes Emma to the SAG Awards, rumors abound. Authentic characters keep the romance slowly building. Sharp dialogue makes this debut soar. Pure delight!  D (2020)

Youngson, Anne, The Narrowboat just misses being a delightful romp. It has all the ingredients: three women, a dog, a boat, and a journey moving Anastasia’s narrowboat and her dog through English canals to be refurbished while Anastasia has an operation. Eve has left her job of thirty years and Sally has dropped her affable, yet boring, husband. They’ll traverse the canals and decide their future paths. A lovely idea falls short. SBP

*Yu, Charles, Interior Chinatown is a wry, sarcastic commentary on racism. Willis Wu lives in a Chinatown SRO above the Golden Palace Restaurant. He yearns to be more than a bit player and wants  to be Kung Fu Guy. With hilarious dialogue, Interior Chinatown skewers stereotypes and delivers a deeply heartfelt novel. It will make you think, question, laugh, and sigh. It won the National Book Award for Fiction in 2020. GPR/S, BC (2020)

+#Zacharias, Lee, What a Wonderful World This Could Be, Readers interested in the 1960s will fall into the setting, based on Indiana University, that rings true for the time, place, and people populating it. In 1964, neglected teen Alex falls for a 27-year-old professor and learns photography from him. Two years later she falls in love with and marries Ted, a civil rights activist, who disappears when charged with a crime. Looking back from the day in 1982 when she learns that Ted has been shot, the novel examines the times beautifully while showing how Alex avoided intimacy. GPR/PP/SN, BC


Mysteries, Suspense, and Thrillers


Andrews, Alexandra, Who is Maud Dixon? is a clever, psychological thriller. Maud Dixon is the nom de plume of a best-selling novelist with a hidden identity. Helen, the author, hires down-on-her-luck Florence as her assistant and they head to Morocco where an accident makes Florence consider usurping Helen’s identity. Who’s lying and who’s the more diabolical? If you like twisty, sinister novels, this might be for you, but I found the ending contrived. CC, BC

+Cash, Wiley, When Ghosts Come Home covers four days in 1984 in a North Carolina island town where the sheriff wakes to a plane crash at the local airport and finds a man shot dead and no cargo. Suspecting drug running, the sheriff investigates while dealing with his wife’s cancer and his daughter’s return home after losing her baby. The man killed was a respected young black man. A racist white developer and too many plot twists interfere with a good story. CC/GS, BC

+Cooney, Caroline B., Before She Was Helen, Clemmie was raped by a coach and teacher and sent away to bear his baby. When she tried to rebuild her life, he followed her so she took on a new identity. Fifty years later in her retirement home in South Carolina, theft, drugs, and a body in the condo next door threaten to derail her life. What to do? A clever page-turner. CC (2020)

*Cosby, S.A., Blacktop Wasteland is Southern noir with metaphors so spot-on you’ll be quoting them in your sleep. Beauregard “Bug” Montage is a skilled driver and mechanic who’s haunted by his past. Despite having a great wife and kids, he doubts himself and when called to commit a crime that might solve his problems, he almost welcomes the challenge. Gritty, genuine, violent, and propulsive with fully fleshed racial tension and expert pacing, this Anthony Award winner is much more than a crime novel. CC/GPR/GS, BC (2020)

*Cosby, S.A., Razorblade Tears is one of the finest suspense/crime novels I’ve ever read and Cosby is a master of the genre. Ike is Black. Buddy Lee is white. They have little but violent past lives in common until their sons are murdered. Neither Ike nor Buddy Lee had accepted their sons’ marriage and both were estranged from them. Still, they loved their boys so they seek revenge together and mayhem coupled with phenomenal writing, tenderness, violence, and humor are the result. Read it in a day, then return to savor it. CC/GPR/GS, BC

+Hawkins, Rachel, The Wife Upstairs is a Southern gothic retelling of Jane Eyre. It’s a plot-driven page-turner that envisions today’s Jane as a broke dog walker who falls for wealthy Eddie Rochester and attempts to reinvent herself after the mysterious death of Eddie’s wife and her best friend. CC/GS (2020)

+#Heller, Peter, The Guide, It’s been three years since Jack’s adventures in Heller’s brilliant The River and he’s taken a job as a fishing guide at an ultra-exclusive Colorado resort. Set in the near future, guests fear a new Covid variant and don’t mingle thus allowing Jack to get close to Alison, the famous singer he’s assigned to guide. Phenomenal descriptions of fishing and the landscape along with a surprising twist make this compelling. GPR/SN, BC

+Indridason, Arnaldur, The Darkness Knows follows Konrád, a retired police detective, as he investigates the discovery of a body in a melting glacier. Sigurvin’s disappearance was an unsolved case that haunted Konrád for years. Indridason’s books always combine the brooding Icelandic land with sinister characters. Konrád’s grief since the loss of his beloved wife adds to his anguish. Once again, Indridason delivers a fine, dark tale. CC/SBP

+Kubica, Mary, Local Woman Missing is a tale told by several narrators in the eleven years after Delilah, a young child, goes missing. Her mother, who also disappears but is later found dead from suicide, is one of the narrators as is a neighbor. Some of the scenarios are implausible, but the suspense and pace compensate for the odd plotting. The audio is well done. CC/RT

Lippman, Laura, Dream Girl is Lippman’s first foray into horror and I wish she’d stayed with mysteries. I love Lippman, but Dream Girl has too many unreliable narrators and the minor characters aren’t fleshed out enough to make me believe their actions. The premise of a famous author who’s injured and needs an assistant and a night nurse to care for him in his new penthouse apartment seems promising, but the strange phone calls and odd visits from his former girlfriend don’t add up. Thankfully, the humor is well done. CC

+May, Peter, The Night Gate is the seventh and last of the Enzo Macleod, forensic investigator series. It’s the first I’ve read and I caution readers to begin with the first. Macleod arrives to examine the remains of a murdered Luftwaffe officer recently discovered in a French village. A Paris art dealer has been murdered recently and the ties go back to WWII when many of the Louvre’s finest paintings including the Mona Lisa were sheltered in the area. The tale of Georgette Pignal who deGaulle assigned to protect the Mona Lisa is compelling. It’s a clever mix of historical fiction and criminal intrigue. CC/PP/SBP

+McLain, Paula, When the Stars Go Dark tells the anguished tale of Anna, a detective fighting her own demons of childhood trauma and recent loss, who’s searching for a missing teen in Mendocino, CA. The psychological aspects of repressed memory and victimization make this different from the usual missing girl thriller. I found the ending both satisfying and predictable. The slowed pace matches Anna’s pain-filled grief. McLain uses her experience in the foster care system to make her character’s actions realistic, making this more personal than her previous historical novels. It makes you care. CC

Michaelides, Alex, The Maidens features Mariana, a grieving therapist, whose niece Zoe calls her when her close friend, a fellow Cambridge student, is murdered. The Maidens are a group of Cambridge women students who seem to worship a professor who Mariana is convinced is the killer. The pace is slow, red herrings misdirect needlessly, and the ending doesn’t fit what we know of the characters. At least the very short chapters move it along. OC/SBP

+Mizushima, Margaret, Striking Range: A Timber Creek Canine Mystery, #7 is a captivating mystery offering pure escape. Mattie is to meet the man who may know about her father’s death years ago, but as she waits to see him in a prison anteroom, he’s murdered with a dose of fentanyl and a girl who’s just had a baby is killed. This series is always intriguing. CC/SN

*Mullen, Caitlin, Please See Us is a dark, searing, literary suspense novel that forces the reader to see each character through the author’s intense portraits of them. Set in deteriorating Atlantic City where young women keep disappearing, it focuses on Clara, a teen psychic, and Lily, an educated former NYC gallery girl, escaping a betrayal. When Lily finds extraordinary portraits from the past, she’s compelled to find the painter and bring what he sees to light. It’s an edgy, brilliant, and potent view of violence against women. G, BC (2020)

+Newman, T. J., Falling grabs you from the first page and keeps you breathless throughout. Observing an attempt to crash a plane from the view of the pilot, flight attendants, the pilot’s wife and family, and an FBI agent places the reader in the fast pace of this irresistible tale. Can’t believe it’s a debut. CC/GPR, BC

+Osman, Richard, The Man Who Died Twice is the sequel to The Thursday Murder Club which you should read first or you’ll miss the nuance of each character’s actions. Elizabeth is summoned to mind her first husband, a British spy who bad guys are trying to find, and Ibrahim is mugged and severely injured. The crew and Bogdan work to solve crimes involving revenge, diamonds, and the mafia. Joyce and Bogdan are especially stellar and the way the friends support each other is heartwarming and clever. CC/D/SBP, BC 

*Osman, Richard, The Thursday Murder Club 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)

Pearce, Sarah, The Sanatorium is an eerie, atmospheric gothic thriller that attempts to be Rebecca at a snowy, icy hotel in Switzerland. The exclusive, sterile hotel is a reconfiguration of an old tuberculosis sanatorium and we readers are meant to feel the chill of the setting as we watch Elin, a British detective on extended leave, deal with childhood trauma, her distrust of her brother, her conflicted feelings about her boyfriend, and a murder that only she can solve once an avalanche cuts the hotel off from the police. That the book tries to do and be too much would be a massive understatement. The use of technology is laughable. CC/SBP

+Penny, Louise, The Madness of Crowds puts Gamache and his family in Three Pines when a controversial statistician advocating for the culling of the weak, disabled, and damaged due to what she considers a scarcity of resources after the Covid pandemic speaks in the area. When someone attempts to kill her during her talk and there’s another death soon after, suspects abound. The kindness of the characters always makes me thankful for Penny. I raced through this then kept pondering the concerns she illuminated. GPR/CC/SF, BC

+Penny, Louise and Clinton, Hillary, State of Terror combines Penny’s ingenious skills of developing suspense, tension, and exceptional characters with Clinton’s insider knowledge of diplomacy, crisis management, and the minutiae of government to create a thriller you’ll read in a day. Regardless of your politics, it’s a delightfully engaging page-turner. Having characters from the Gamache series in cameo appearances is icing on the cake. GPR/CC/SN, BC

+#Richard, Saralyn, A Murder of Principal engages the reader with a fast-paced murder mystery set in an urban high school then uses that engagement to explore issues of race, gang influence, and prejudice without being preachy. This book would make a compelling book discussion, especially for high school teachers. Readers living in Chicago’s south suburbs and south side will want to explore the issues it reveals. CC/SN

Royce, Deborah Goodrich, Ruby Falls offers a riff on Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca in an updated tale of Eleanor Ruby Russell, a soap opera drama star, who gets fired then lands a spot in a movie remake of Rebecca with a twist. Eleanor’s new husband doesn’t seem to be what he says. If you like unreliable narrators, this might be your tale. CC 

+Steiner, Susie, Missing Presumed is a masterful British mystery that delves into the disappearance of an altruistic graduate student whose parents have friends in high places. Examining the lives of Detective Sergeant Manon and Miriam, the mother of the missing woman, makes the book a riveting exploration of loneliness, forgiveness, and self-awareness. CC/GPR/SBP, BC (2016)

*Whitaker, Chris, We Begin at the End features fierce 13-year-old Duchess and her vulnerable, sweet younger brother Robin. Walk, the sheriff, tries to protect them, but their mother is killed and someone might be out to get them. The tension pulls you through the last page and won’t let go. Winner of the Gold Dagger for Best Crime Novel of the Year (U.K.), it has vulnerable characters, lush language, and expert pacing that makes it a winner. CC/GPR/SBP, BC

+White, Kali, The Monsters We Make is a taut thriller set in a small Iowa town where a boy disappears while delivering the Sunday papers in 1984. Another paperboy is distraught but won’t tell his older sister. Their family is already having money troubles and the sister wants to get away and go to college. The officer in charge of the case is a wreck. Who can anyone trust? CC (2020)

*Winspear, Jacqueline, Journey to Munich, Maisie Dobbs Book 12, In 1938, a trusted old friend asks Maisie to impersonate the daughter of a British industrialist imprisoned in Dachau. She agrees and travels to Munich where the woman she blames for her husband’s death is involved in the intrigue. This is outstanding with several clever twists. CC/GPR/PP/SN (2016)

*Winspear, Jacqueline, In This Grave Hour, Maisie Dobbs Book 13, Just as England enters the war with Germany in 1939, Maisie is asked to investigate the murder of a Belgian engineer who came to London as a teen during World War I and there may be ties to other Belgian refugees. Maisie is also caring for Anna, a five-year-old refugee orphan who’s been evacuated to Maisie’s family home in Kent. CC/GPR/PP/SN (2017)

*Winspear, Jacqueline, To Die But Once, Maisie Dobbs Book 14, is set in 1940 when Britain declares war against Germany. A young apprentice on assignment painting buildings with fire retardant disappears. Nefarious operators take advantage of wartime opportunities and the son of Maisie’s best friend sails into the English Channel on a harrowing rescue mission. CC/GPR/PP/SN (2018)

*Winspear, Jacqueline, The American Agent, Maisie Dobbs, Book 15, When Catherine, an American correspondent reporting on the war in Europe, is murdered, Scotland Yard and the U.S. Department of Justice involve Maisie in uncovering the truth of the woman’s murder. Meanwhile, the Blitz rains havoc on London and Maisie tries to protect evacuee Anna who she wants to adopt. CC/GPR/PP/SN (2019)




*Anonymous, Becoming Duchess Goldblatt 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.” GPR/S/SF (2020)

*Cooper, Arshay, A Most Beautiful Thing: The True Story of America’s First All-Black High School Rowing Team is one of the most inspiring memoirs I’ve ever read. When Arshay was fifteen, a crew came to his troubled west-side Chicago high school to recruit kids for a rowing team and Arshay’s life changed. You will adore Arshay and cheer for him and his teammates. Watch the documentary based on the book to see them in action. Note: Arshay is just as engaging in person and as a speaker. He’s a gem. GPR/SF/SN, BC (2020)

+Gladwell, Malcolm, Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About the People We Don’t Know, I listened to this and at times the graphic details of girls’ testimony in the Nasser rape case were difficult to hear, but overall Gladwell’s thesis that we use our impressions of people to make poor decisions was fascinating and made a long car ride go quickly. The way we default to believing everyone is honest allows society to work, but sometimes it has consequences ala Bernie Madoff and others in this book. SN/RT, BC (2019)

*Greenspan, Dorie, Baking with Dorie offers something for the novice and the expert. A chapter on basics contains recipes for eight crusts and a simple one for confectioners’ sugar icing. For the experienced baker, there are exquisite savory recipes for Vegetable Ribbon Tart and Smoked Salmon Roll-Ups. Sweets include Gougeres, Tea and Honey Madeleines, Pistachio-Matcha Financiers, One Bite Cinnamon Puffs, and a Double-Decker Salted Caramel Cake. Breads, brioche, pies, muffins, scones, tarts, and cobblers—oh, my! SN

Hamill, Kirkland, Filthy Beasts is the memoir of a family that defines dysfunction. Hamill’s mother’s alcoholism and insecurity after her husband left her meant that their move to her native Bermuda when Kirk was eight is doomed. They have little income and child support so Kirk and his brothers raise themselves. That they came from generations of wealth doesn’t matter when they’re hungry, yet their privilege hovers over their every action. Hamill writes with humor and heart, but I found the book too detached. (2020)

Horwitz, Tony, Spying on the South: An Odyssey Across the American Divide relates Horwitz’s journey to replicate Frederick Law Olmsted’s 1850s travels across the American South. Horowitz finds a deep cultural divide as he treks the back roads. While often mired in minutiae, the book offers insights, but it could have done so with 100 fewer pages and less bias. Most of my book club agreed, however several of the history buffs loved it. OC/SN (2019)

*Jaouad, Suleika, Between Two Kingdoms: A Memoir of a Life Interrupted, Susan Sontag wrote about the fine line between the “kingdom of the well and the kingdom of the sick.” When Jaouad was 24, she was diagnosed with advanced leukemia and entered the kingdom of the sick. She tells the story of her treatment followed by her journey across the U.S. to see the people who wrote her when she was ill. This book gorgeously tells what it means to live a full life. I inhaled it and believe everyone will love it. GPR/SF, BC

*Kiely, Brendan, The Other Talk, see Diet Coke and Gummi Bears for a book on white privilege that adults need as much as teens. 

*Lamott, Anne, Dusk, Night, Dawn: On Revival and Courage comes just when we’re emerging from our pandemic cocoons and need company on the journey. Lamott provides clever anecdotes and self-deprecating stories that soften the hardships. Gather your friends to discuss it and support each other. In another year, this might not have been on my list of the most outstanding titles, but it’s just what we need this year which to me makes it outstanding.  GPR/SF, BC

+Larsen, Eric, The Splendid and the Vile offers an insider view of Churchill’s first year as Prime Minister (1940-41) when Germany continually attacked England from the air. Portrayals of characters including Churchill’s 17-year-old daughter Mary, Nazi leader Rudolph Hess, and Churchill’s secretary Jock Coville along with ordinary Brits, the book puts you alongside those bombed and fearing death. It makes it real and the audio version is brilliant. SN/RT (2020)

+Letts, Elizabeth, The Ride of Her Life: the True Story of a Woman, Her Horse, and Their Last-Chance Journey Across America takes the reader on Annie Wilkins’s 1954 trek from Maine to California walking with two horses and a dog. Annie’s persistence, attitude, and expectation that things would work out is just what we need in a topsy-turvy year. I loved that a 63-year-old woman told she had terminal tuberculosis, would trek across the country on a grand adventure. The way people took her in, the ease with which she made friends, and the way she treated people is balm for the soul. GPR/SF/SN, BC

+McCaulley, Esau, Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope is both a personal and an academic examination of Biblical reading and interpretation that shows how reading the Bible from the perspective of the Black church helps us see contemporary issues and gain a better understanding of scripture. His words regarding the establishment of Christianity in Africa long before enslaved people were sent to the western hemisphere were eye-opening. Study this with a group. SF/SN (2020)

*Obama, Michelle, Becoming makes Ms. Obama’s journey, starting in a working-class home on Chicago’s south side to the Ivy League and the White House, a compelling story. I particularly enjoyed the stories of her childhood and high school years and of becoming a parent. Her metaphors made me a part of her life. This is best in the audio version that she reads. GPR/RF/SN, BC (2018)

+Oliver, Jamie, Jamie Oliver 7 Ways: Easy Ideas for Every Day of the Week offers recipes for the ingredients we all use. The chapters offer ideas for cooking chicken, broccoli, and other staples in our homes in new ways. SN (2020)

+Parvanes, Elena, The Mediterranean Diet Cookbook for Beginners includes recipes and tricks for healthy and delicious eating. Stuffed dates with feta, Parmesan, and pine nuts, no-Mayo potato salad, shrimp and feta saganaki, spanakorizo, and citrus Mediterranean salmon are all tempting. SN (2020)

*Perry, Imani, Breathe, A Letter to My Sons is scholar Perry’s epistle to her sons in which she lets them know that despite the inevitable perils of being Black young men in America that she wants them to overcome fear and live life fully. Breathe is her demand that all Black children be treated with dignity and kindness. Her words are exquisite and I hope they make some of us white readers go beyond being “silent witnesses” to leave behind our passive acceptance that allows us to reap “silent rewards.” Remarkable! G/SF (2019)

*Rankine, Claudia, Just Us combines essays, poetry, pictures, and careful thought to examine and cajole us into conversations about race and the effects of the way white people disregarding race impacts all of us. Challenge yourself, learn something, read this book. G/SN/T (2020)

*Tokarczuk, Olga, Concejo, Joanna, illustrator, The Lost Soul is an exquisitely illustrated call to slow down, pay attention, and celebrate the present that’s just the salve needed in our super-sized, speed-driven culture. It belongs on every coffee table as an antidote to the stress in our lives. GPR/T

*#Turner, Dawn, Three Girls from Bronzeville: A Uniquely American Memoir of Race, Fate, and Sisterhood illuminates Chicago’s Bronzeville area where disinvestment and poorly planned and maintained low-income high rises led to worsening inequities in education and opportunities in the 1970s. Turner, an award-winning journalist, whose work in the Chicago Tribune was one of the reasons I kept subscribing, made me feel the pain of loss and the power of forgiveness, resilience, and redemption in this book about second chances and who gets them. Those three girls will live forever in my heart. Powerful writing! GPR/SF/SN, BC

*Winspear, Jaqueline, This Time Next Year We’ll Be Laughing 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 a fine guide. GPR/SBP/SF (2020)


Peanut Butter and Jelly


*Adams, Mary Stewart, DeLisa, Patricia, illustrator, The Star Tales of Mother Goose combines the intricacies of the night sky and constellations with Mother Goose tales and the history behind them. Adults and children will keep returning to the sky maps, the glossary, and the stories. PBJ/SN All ages

+Dussaussois, Sophie and Picard, Caroline, illustrator, The Pop-Up Guide to Space has all the facts and pictures to make the solar system loving kid enjoy learning more about space. PBJ/SN Ages 3-6

 +Evans, Rachel Held and Turner, Matthew Paul. Tan, Yin Hui, illustrator, What is God Like? is a wonderfully inclusive look at God that any child or adult can understand. I adore the way it explains tough concepts as “God is both here and, mysteriously, also over there. God is everywhere.” The last paragraph is just right: “But whenever you aren’t sure what God is like, think about what makes you feel safe, what makes you feel brave, and what makes you feel loved. That’s what God is like.” Buy it for yourself and for a child you love. The illustrations are appropriate and complement the words well, but I didn’t find them spectacular. It’s perfect for Sunday Schools. PBJ/SF Ages 4-8

*Keller, Laurie and Willems, Mo, We Are Growing shows blades of grass growing at different speeds and helps the slow grass realize that everyone has their strengths. Clever sound effects delight new readers. PBJ Ages 5- 8

*Klassen, Jon, The Rock from the Sky is both dark and silly. Turtle likes his special spot. Armadillo has a bad feeling about the spot and wants his friend to leave it. With a threatening big rock and a turtle who won’t listen, it could be scary, but whimsy makes it welcoming. My grandson loves it. PBJ Ages 5-8

*Loubler, Virginia with multiple illustrators, Do You Know? Space and Sky is both a delightful introduction to space and an in-depth exploration of the sky, the solar system, and space exploration. It’s perfect for the budding astronomer. PBJ/SN Ages 5-8

*Mackesy, Charles, The Boy, the Mole, the Fox, and the Horse, see Fiction, all ages (2019) All ages

*Pinkney, Brian, Puppy Truck, “Carter wanted a puppy. He got a truck. So he pet it and put a leash around it.” This humorous look at a resourceful kid and the truck he treats like a puppy will engage children. (2019) PBJ Ages 3-8

*Pennypacker, Sara, Klassen, Jon, illustrator, Pax, Journey Home, Pax, the fox whose name rhymes with Max, returns in this poignant sequel to the magnificent Pax. It’s been a year since Pax and Peter, the boy who raised him, were separated. Peter, now orphaned, is living with kind Vola, a disabled veteran, but is troubled and restless. Alternating between Pax and Peter, the book soars. Tissues required. PBJ/SF Ages 8-12 and adults of all ages

+Pumphrey, Jared and Pumphrey, Jerome, The Old Boat features the same compelling illustration style that the Pumphreys shared in their magnificent debut, The Old Truck. The Old Boat shows a family exploring the sea and finding environmental changes that kids will understand. PBJ/SN Ages 5-8

*Rylant, Cynthia, Ruzzier, Sergio, illustrator, We Give Thanks, “We give thanks for apple trees and bushes filled with roses. We give thanks for nice warm soup and fires to warm our toeses.” You could read this witty charmer every day. Buy it for Thanksgiving:  “We give thanks for everything and now it’s time to EAT.” PBJ/SF Ages 2-8

*Tokarczuk, Olga, Concejo, Joanna, illustrator, The Lost Soul, see nonfiction for a book that you can share with every child you know. SF All ages

*Warga, Jasmine, The Shape of Thunder illuminates grief and loss. Cora and her best friend Quinn haven’t spoken to each other in almost a year since Cora’s sister died in a school shooting. On Cora’s twelfth birthday, Quinn leaves a present at Cora’s door that leads the girls to investigate time travel. This is a miraculous book for kids that should help them talk about tough problems and get help when they need it. PBJ/SF Ages 9-12


Diet Coke and Gummi Bears

*Boulley, Angeline, Firekeeper’s Daughter is a captivating mystery that embeds the reader into the Ojibwe world of Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan and Ontario. 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 extraordinary. DC/SN Ages 14 and up

Henry, April, The Girl in the White Van offers a message of empowerment to teen girls. Savannah disappears after leaving her Kung fu class which she attended despite an angry argument with her mother’s boyfriend. Less than a year previously, Jenny disappeared under similar circumstances. Will they be found in time to save them and will Savannah’s Bruce Lee aphorisms help her? It’s a short romp that would have benefited from more character development but still offers escape and intrigue. CC/DC (2020) Ages 15 and up 

*Kiely, Brendan, The Other Talk: Reckoning with Our White Privilege, When Kiely was a teen, a cop pulled him over while he was driving 75 in a 45 mph zone and told him “go home, be safe, keep your friends safe.” No ticket yet he had no idea of his white privilege. Examples intermingled with facts make this book compelling. “Too many of us white people let all the racism around us just slide. We give it a pass, we don’t confront it. And therefore it continues.” Read this book! It’s worth buying just to have the list of books, publications, websites, blogs, and podcasts Kiely cites at the end. DC/SN Ages 12 and up

+Kiely, Brendan, Tradition takes the reader to an elite prep school where Jamie is on a hockey scholarship and Jules just wants to do what’s needed to get into a great college and escape. When the two meet, they find kindred souls who see the horrors behind school traditions. Many books explore rape culture, but few examine toxic masculinity and its effects. A fine story that highlights important issues. D/SN Ages 13 and up (2018)

*Mathieu, Jennifer, Moxie, Vivian is a good girl. She’s sixteen, an outstanding student, and is a delight to her grandparents—until now. She’s had it with her sexist, football-worshiping high school where only boys matter so she creates an anonymous feminist zine and the other girls in her school take note. The movie is bringing attention to this fantastic book. DC/GPR, BC (2017) Ages 14 and up

+Schmidt, Gary, Just Like That, It’s 1968, and Meryl Lee’s best friend just died in a car accident so when her parents send her to boarding school in Maine, she agrees but finds it filled with snobs. Thankfully, the headmistress challenges her. In a parallel story, the headmistress takes in a boy with a dangerous and frightening past. Navigating grief is a theme and Schmidt’s use of humor makes it work. DC/PP Ages 10 - 14

*Thomas, Angie, Concrete Rose is a prequel to the magnificent The Hate U Give. It focuses on Maverick’s (Starr’s father) life in high school when his father was in prison, his beloved cousin was killed, and his gang ties threatened him and his relationship with his girlfriend. It gives voice to the importance of family and neighborhood support especially in areas with gang influence. DC/GPR, BC Ages 14 and up

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