Saturday, January 29, 2022

Your Guide to Not Getting Murdered in a Quaint English Village by Maureen Johnson and Jay Cooper


Many of you are delving into cozy mysteries because they offer ingenious twists without gratuitous gore. Your Guide to Not Getting Murdered in a Quaint English Village by Maureen Johnson and Jay Cooper is just what you need to escape the third-winter-of-the-pandemic doldrums. It’s a clever treat hidden in a survival guide replete with instructions and Edmund Gorey-like illustrations. Maureen Johnson is the best-selling author of numerous young adult novels. Illustrator Jay Cooper is best known as an illustrator of children’s books and his dive into the world of unsettling, edgy, darkly Victorian drawings is a delicious diversion from real life. That both have collaborated on this departure from the world of young adult and children’s books is such a gift for bored adults. 

Your Guide… offers a brief interlude for dreary days with its wry humor that’s guaranteed to make jaded readers smile. It’s quite short and you’ll finish it quickly, but blimey, it’s brilliant.

Summing it Up: Beware of the Vicar! 

Rating: 4 Stars

Categories: Dessert, Sushi, Tapas

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Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Geographies of the Heart by Caitlin Hamilton Summie

I anticipated loving Geographies of the Heart when I saw that Al and Sarah my favorite characters from Summie’s brilliant short story collection To Lay to Rest Our Ghosts were its main characters. I set aside a day to read it and found myself taking breaks at the end of each chapter because I never wanted it to end and I needed to think about each section. On the fourth day, I allowed myself to read the last chapters as I sighed over the joy of living in a world in which a novelist like Summie can envelop a reader so completely. I adore this novel and the broad, yet intimate connections it forges with its multi-dimensional, fully human characters and the reader lucky enough to meet them. 

When the novel opens in 1994, Sarah, a college senior searching for a job, meets Al, a Ph.D. student. He’s large, lumbering, and shy and I’m head-over-heels in love with him. “Al had the heart of a puppy in the body of a bear.”

Sarah is responsible with a capital “R.” Her family always comes first. She cares for her grandparents as they adjust to life in a nursing home, she worries over her younger sister Glennie, a single-minded medical student with no time for family, she attends to her parents, and when she and Al have a baby, she’s a wonderful mother. She and Al complement each other and their happy marriage with its humor and caring lifts them both when the inevitable wounds of life strike. “He was hers. His landscape, his terrain, were the world she breathed.”

Sarah, Al, and Glennie narrate the novel sharing their viewpoints of the geography of their shared history that influence their actions. Each of them keenly observes the world around them and each of them shows us how we, too, channel our grief and hurt feelings through the narrow perspective of our singular tunnel vision.

When I read, I keep Post-it note flags at hand to mark passages I want to recall or revisit. As seen here, I used almost a full package tagging the memorable metaphors, captivating dialogue, and insightful reflections in Geographies of the Heart.

One example came as Sarah’s grandmother lay dying. Sarah observed, “My grandmother was a keeper of secrets. During her last few days, semi-coherent, she told them all, let loose the accumulated small and large betrayals in whispers, the secrets hissing out of her like a tire losing air. She lay in her bed muttering, and we collected the secrets like we collect shells on the beach.”

Hovering throughout the book is the tempestuous relationship between Sarah and Glennie. Sarah realizes “I don’t like her very much, even though I love her, and I wonder what size I’ve made her feel over the years, how much a person like me can wear another down, or send a scar straight into the marrow to stay. I wonder how much she likes me.

We’re from the same place, but we have different geographies of the heart.”

Read Geographies of the Heart to inhabit a landscape of characters you’ll hold your breath worrying over and to encounter a family and place so real you’ll expect to lift your head from the page and see them sitting across from you.

Summing it Up: Caitlin Hamilton Summie’s Geographies of the Heart is a compelling, complex novel about an ordinary family told in three voices that will capture your heart. It’s one of the best novels I’ve read in years.

Let’s also give a shout-out to the gorgeous cover. It’s an image of a cluster of red blood cells which is appropriate for a novel about the ties of blood and the heart.

Note: Geographies of the Heart is available on digital platforms (Kobo and Kindle) for $4.99.

Rating: 5 Stars

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

Publication Date: January 18, 2022

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Foreword Reviews:

Publishers Weekly:

Geographies of the Heart is a landmark achievement in the remarkable writing career of Caitlin Hamilton Summie. This debut novel captivates, pulsing with a deep, cinematic vibrancy. Geographies of the Heart is filled with characters that beguile, enchant and bond with the reader in a brilliant, immersive literary experience.” – The Culture Buzz

“An accomplished, confident debut, with complex characters you’ll be rooting for.”—J. Ryan Stradal, bestselling author of Kitchens of the Great Midwest and The Lager Queen of Minnesota

Geographies of the Heart is both riveting and moving, its characters rendered with painstaking and loving attention. I got to know them very well, and the author made me care about them. Caitlin Hamilton Summie is not afraid to go deep, to explore the fears and emotions most of us spend so much time trying to conceal. I loved this novel. I only wish there were more like it.”—Steve Yarbrough, author of The Unmade World

“Years of secrets, resentments, and words left unspoken force a family to examine the fragile complexities of the heart. A tender yet powerful journey, where bitterness gives way to the determination it takes to stitch lives back together.”—Beth HoffmanNew York Times bestselling author of Saving CeeCee Honeycutt

“Caitlin Hamilton Summie writes like waves cross large oceans. Words, sentences, chapters and stories build with a complexity of wind, current, and underground tectonic force until they crash toward their resolution onshore.  Her debut novel, Geographies of the Heart, is a new force of nature that readers of Summie’s work will love. Intense, searching, intimate in the moment and sweeping in its range, this novel is an oceans-wide meditation on the inseparability of family, and the redemption of loss.”—Andrew Krivak, author of The Bear

Monday, January 3, 2022

The Best Historical Fiction of 2021

Historical fiction is a favorite genre for readers because it combines story with an intriguing setting, allows readers to learn about characters whose problems are different than their own, and helps us understand how the past shapes who we are today. Reading historical fiction allows us to dwell in a different time and place thus it often feels like taking a vacation. In other cases, it plants us in places where we’d never want to live while making us ponder why events like the holocaust happened. 

I wrote about the three best books I read in this category, Hamnet, The Removed, and Zorrie here. I hope you enjoy traveling across the years with the following titles. They’re in alphabetical order by title. For the purpose of this site, I define historical fiction as set a minimum of fifty years ago.

The Best Historical Fiction (Pigeon Pie) of 2021

The Book of Longings by Sue Monk Kidd 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 is 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. Kidd, best known for The Secret Life of Bees, was a writer for Guideposts magazine for many years. GPR/PP/SF/SN, BC (2020)

The Children’s Blizzard by Melanie Benjamin 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  

Deacon King Kong by James McBride 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)

Fifty Words for Rain by Asha LemmieNoriko 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. I’m dying to discuss it. GPR/PP/SN, BC

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/PP/SBP/SN, BC

The Kitchen Front by Jennifer Ryan 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

Libertie by Kaitlyn Greenidge is a free-born Black woman living with her light-skinned mother, a brilliant 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

Things Fall Apart by China Achebethe 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)

These Granite Islands by Sarah Stonich 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)

What a Wonderful World This Could Be by Lee Zacharias, 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


Saturday, January 1, 2022

The Best Nonfiction of 2021


“Just the facts, ma’am” is a statement often attributed to Sgt. Joe Friday on the 1950s TV series Dragnet. Facts are important, especially in today’s  polarized world. The best nonfiction presents facts with sizzling dialogue, well-described and developed characters, similes and metaphors that make the reader feel the setting and action, and a narrative arc that leads the reader into the events portrayed. Outstanding nonfiction writers document every quotation, observation, and description with notes, recordings, transcripts, and research. They then take those documented facts and weave them into a tale that makes us want to learn why and how things happened. The following books were the best I read in 2021.

The Best Nonfiction of 2021

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. It’s quite a testament to the Duchess that her identity has remained a secret this long. We don’t need to know her name, we only need to know what she teaches us about life. “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)

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. Yes, it’s about her cancer treatment, but more importantly, it’s a book about embracing life. GPR/SF, BC

Breathe, A Letter to My Sons by Imani Perry 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” and leave behind our passive acceptance that allows us to reap “silent rewards.” This book is remarkable and Perry is a genius. 
G/SF (2019)

Most Beautiful Thing: The True Story of America’s First All-Black High School Rowing Team by Arshay Cooper 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. It’s available on several platforms. Note: Arshay is just as engaging in person and as a speaker. He’s a gem. GPR/SF/SN, BC (2020)

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

Three Girls from Bronzeville: A Uniquely American Memoir of Race, Fate, and Sisterhood by Dawn Turner 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! Watch or listen to interviews or programs Turner has given since publication. She makes her story come alive. GPR/SF/SN, BC