Monday, March 14, 2022

The Swimmers by Julie Otsuka

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 5 Stars

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

Publication Date: March 7, 2022

Author Website:

Read an Excerpt: 

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

What Others are Saying: 

Kirkus Reviews:

Library Journal:

L.A. Times:

New York Times:

Publishers Weekly:

Thursday, March 10, 2022

Like a Complete Unknown by Anara Guard


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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 4 Stars

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

Publication Date: March 8, 2022

Author Website:

Reading Group Guide:

Read an Excerpt:

What Others are Saying:

Foreword Reviews:

San Francisco Book Review:

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

Monday, March 7, 2022

Bad Blood Sisters by Saralyn Richard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 4 Stars

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

Publication Date: March 9, 2022

Author Website:

Interview with the Author:

What Others are Saying:

Midwest Book Review:

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

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

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