Tuesday, September 27, 2022

The Winners by Fredrik Backman

Out today is The Winners, the third book in Fredrik Backman’s acclaimed Beartown trilogy. This won’t be an extensive review because it’s impossible to describe the tale without spoilers. If you haven’t read Beartown or Us Against You, stop reading this review and read those magnificent stories. This is a true trilogy and you must read them in order. It’s been two a half years since the rape and other tragedies in Beartown. Beartown and Hed are rival Swedish hockey towns that detest each other. After the roof of Hed’s hockey rink collapses during a storm, the Hed team is sent to practice in Beartown and problems multiply. 

Maya and Benji have returned to town and everyone is glad to see them but unsure about the consequences of their past issues. Amat is back after an injury and a failed attempt to make it in the NHL leaves him demoralized. Maya’s parents Peter and Kira are overwhelmed by an embezzlement scandal involving the Beartown club. Perhaps, most frightening is Matteo’s bitterness and desire for revenge after his older sister dies of an overdose. 

With so much trauma and violence, it may be up to the women to do something to change the culture before it’s too late. Some reviews found this book too long. I could have read more because I loved the side stories about each of the characters from the first two novels. Revenge, loyalty, friendship, identity, and forgiveness are themes in this novel that takes a slightly moralistic turn. For series fans that turn will be a welcome one.

Summing it Up: At 688 pages, The Winners is just long enough to wrap up the series and show how each of the characters has grown or changed. The “aha” moment is both surprising and believable and series fans will love the conclusion. Open the first page and fall under Backman’s spell.

Rating: 5 Stars 

Publication Date: September 27, 2022

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

Author Website: https://fredrikbackmanbooks.com/index.html

Reading Group Guide: https://www.simonandschuster.com/books/The-Winners/Fredrik-Backman/Beartown-Series/9781982112790

What Others are Saying:

Kirkus Reviews: https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/fredrik-backman/the-winners/

Publishers Weekly: http://www.publishersweekly.com/9781982112790

Monday, September 19, 2022

Cora’s Kitchen by Kimberly Garrett Brown

Cora’s Kitchen by Kimberly Garrett Brown is a stellar novel that embeds the reader in 1928 Harlem via fictional Black librarian Cora James who works at the 135th Street library where she meets patrons Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston. Cora wants to be a writer, but her job and her responsibilities caring for her family leave her little time to write. Despite the time constraints, Cora writes in her journal daily and those entries offer a view into her world. When she reads Hughes’s poem “Troubled Woman” she feels understood and writes to Hughes.

   “I read one of your poems a few days ago and thought I would write you a letter. I hope you don’t mind.

    The library has not been the same since you went away to school. There are still spirited discussions about race issues at the forums and new authors reading at the Booklover’s Club meetings, but no one talks about poetry, books or writing the way you and I did over the last year.”

Hughes writes her back and encourages her writing. Still, Cora feels troubled and often can’t sleep. She envies the ease of her husband’s life: 

   “He goes to work, plays the music he loves, and comes home. The rest is left to me.”

   “What would life be like if I were a writer? Maybe I’d be like Zora Neale Hurston. She strides into the library with such fanfare and confidence. She’s not running around Harlem after a hard-headed 13-year-old.”

When Cora’s aunt begs her to fill in for her daughter Agnes at her housekeeping job for a white family after Agnes is beaten by her husband and can’t work, Cora takes time off from the library to save her cousin’s job. She cooks, cleans, and takes care of the Fitzgerald family and finds that the work leaves her with time to write. Later, Mrs. Fitzgerald gives Cora Kate Chopin’s novel The Awakening. When Cora reads it, she’s inspired to write about marriage and being a woman. When Mrs. Fitzgerald learns of Cora’s ambitions, she becomes Cora’s patron  offering her time at a country estate where she can write. 

When Cora’s writing veers toward women’s struggles and she writes a story about a cardinal that focuses on the difficulties women, even those like her white patron, face, Langston Hughes reads it and tries to change her direction in a letter to her:

“Cora, you are a beautiful, smart black woman. Don’t lose that in your writing. Tell the story of the strength and perseverance that courses through your veins. Don’t strive to be a great writer. Be a great black writer.”

The response from Hughes confuses Cora, but a dramatic event intervenes and leads to a tragedy forcing Cora to re-examine her life. She remembers a passage in The Awakening: “The bird that would soar above the level plain of tradition and prejudice must have strong wings.”

Cora’s Kitchen illuminates the life of one strong Black woman as it offers a universal portrait of every woman challenged by her dreams and a longing to be her true self. Reading Cora’s Kitchen will make you want to reread The Awakening (or read it for the first time, if you haven’t read the classic). Cora’s Kitchen will make you feel how caring so much about your dream that you’re willing to risk everything will change you. It will also force you to think about developing your own strong wings.

Summing it Up: Read Cora’s Kitchen to enter 1928 Harlem and the life of an educated Black woman who wants the life she deserves. Watch Cora’s growth as a writer as she confronts prejudice and cultural norms that work to drown her ambitions. Celebrate the words of debut author Kimberly Garrett Brown as she shows the power of a “troubled woman, bowed by weariness and pain, like an Autumn flower in the frozen rain.” —Langston Hughes, “Troubled Woman” From The Weary Blues (1926)

Kudos to Val Fullard for the cover and its evocation of a strong Black woman in 1928.

Finalist, 2018 William Faulkner - William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition

Finalist, 2016 Louise Meriwether First Book Prize

Rating: 5 Stars

Publication Date: September 20, 2022

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

Author Website: https://kimberlygarrettbrown.com/ 

Read an Excerpt: https://bloomsite.wordpress.com/2021/11/16/an-excerpt-from-kimberly-garrett-browns-debut-novel-coras-kitchen/?fbclid=IwAR3BzqoxEvzW8U055kgpVsX8E-noZ35x-YGKrqSy3A6wY-euXYZmB4GL7WE 

What Others are Saying:

Compulsive Reader: http://www.compulsivereader.com/2022/07/30/a-review-of-coras-kitchen-by-kimberly-garrett-brown/ 

Kirkus Reviews: https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/kimberly-garrett-brown/coras-kitchen/

Cora’s Kitchen delves deeply into what it means to be a Black woman with ambition, to make choices and keep secrets, and to have an unexpected alliance with a white woman that ultimately may save both of them. Kimberly Garrett Brown renders Cora with immense empathy, acknowledging and confronting Cora’s own prejudices and allegiances and the social pressures that continue to reverberate far beyond this story. Cora’s Kitchen is a poignant, compelling story in which misfortune and fortune cannot be teased apart, and literature and life have everything to do with each other.”

—Anna Leahy, author of What Happened Was: and Tumor

“It has been said, the universal is found in the specific, and in Cora’s Kitchen, all women will find their challenges and longings expressed with unflinching honesty. Kimberly Garrett Brown’s characters are faithful to a time, yet timeless, transcending the years to both painfully and beautifully illustrate the struggles women face to find and fulfill their vocations. Spellbinding.”

—Erika Robuck, national bestselling author of The Invisible Woman

Saturday, September 10, 2022

Lucy by the Sea by Elizabeth Strout

Lucy by the Sea is Pulitzer Prize winner Elizabeth Strout’s latest entry in the Lucy Barton Amagash series after last year’s phenomenal Booker nominee Oh William! It’s a stand-alone novel, but I recommend reading My Name is Lucy Barton, Anything is Possible, and Oh William! to fully understand the characters in this character-driven novel. 

It’s March 2020, and Lucy’s ex-husband William, a scientist, feels that the new virus will be serious, so he begs Lucy to leave New York City. His friend Bob Burgess, who was a marvelous character in Strout’s 2013 The Burgess Boys, returns and offers Willam an empty home on the ocean in Burgess’s rural Maine village. Lucy doesn’t think they’ll be gone long and she packs only a small suitcase and doesn’t plan to take her laptop. William insists that acclaimed author Lucy needs her laptop, but she doesn’t see the need and William takes it. Later, that proves important to her story. Their fourteen-day quarantine grows longer and Lucy can’t stand the cold, the lack of green vegetation (having left New York when daffodils were beginning to bloom), and the isolation of having no one but William and occasionally Bob Burgess to talk with outside in the wind and cold. Lucy grew up in deep poverty and being cold is both a physical and an emotional deprivation that wounds her. As the weather improves, she begins walking more and also volunteers at a local outdoor food pantry where she begins to meet some of the townspeople. 

As I read Lucy’s ruminations, I felt she was recreating what was inside my head and heart, especially in that first year of the pandemic. She perfectly captured the feelings so many of us had when we couldn’t concentrate, were afraid for our children, suffered from an inability to sleep or relax, and had difficulties understanding how those who didn’t share our opinions were acting. That she also captured some of the coping mechanisms we used, makes this novel a gift instead of a lament. 

When Lucy realizes how much many of the townspeople resent those who’ve decamped there from cities, she begins to understand the deep divide our country was experiencing. Because she received a scholarship and attended college unlike the rest of her family and most of those in her hometown, she understood that she now had the means to live safely by the sea while others were losing their jobs or dying.

When rioters breached the Capitol on January 6, 2020, Lucy pondered, 

“What if all the jobs I had taken in my life were not enough to really make a living, what if I felt looked down upon all the time by the wealthier people in this country, who made fun of me and my religion and guns. I did not have religion and I did not have guns, but suddenly I felt that I saw what these people were feeling; they were like my sister Vicky, and I understood them. They had been made to feel poorly about themselves, they were looked at with disdain, and they could no longer stand it.” 

While volunteering at the food pantry, Lucy became friends with Charlene, a younger woman who worked as an apartment cleaner. She began walking with her occasionally. Several months later, Lucy and Charlene were sitting outside and Charlene said, “I’m not going to work at the food pantry anymore.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Well,” she tugged her coat closer to her and said, “When the vaccines come out—and they’re coming—I’m not going to get one, and so I won’t be able to work there.”

“They told you that?”

“Yup.” Charlene picked at one eye with a gloved hand.

I almost said, why won’t you get a vaccine? But I did not say that, and she did not tell me why.

“I’m sorry,” I said, and she said, “Thanks.”

We sat there in the quiet, and then she said, “Well, let’s get walking.”

Lucy by the Sea is a book with themes and lessons that keep nudging my soul telling me to be quiet and listen without trying to fix or explain. It’s a novel I read in less than a day. I plan to return to explore it often. 

Summing it Up: Read Lucy by the Sea to explore the Covid world we all encountered. Fall into it to ruminate on what most of us have yet to fathom about how we changed, stagnated, became embittered, worried, and learned or didn’t learn to accept that our world was a different place. Experience the depth and humanity of the brilliant characters Elizabeth Strout creates and be grateful to live when those characters periodically reappear in fresh new novels to entertain and comfort us. 

Rating: Five Stars

Publication Date: September 20, 2022

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

Author Website: https://www.elizabethstrout.com/

Read an Excerpt: https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/706911/lucy-by-the-sea-by-elizabeth-strout/

What Others are Saying: 

Kirkus Reviews: https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/elizabeth-strout/lucy-by-the-sea/

The New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2022/09/16/books/review/lucy-by-the-sea-lucy-barton.html 

Publishers Weekly: https://www.publishersweekly.com/9780593446065

Star Tribune: https://www.startribune.com/review-lucy-by-the-sea-by-elizabeth-strout/600207451/


Tuesday, September 6, 2022

The Two Lives of Sara by Catherine Adel West

The Two Lives of Sara by Catherine Adel West begins when Sara takes the bus to Memphis to escape life in Chicago after her father’s death. She’s young, single, and pregnant so Mama Sugar, Sara’s close friend Naomi’s aunt and the proprietor of The Scarlet Poplar rooming house, a haven in Memphis’s Black community welcomes Sara as a cook and helps her when her son Lebanon is born.

West’s debut novel Saving Ruby King was one of my favorite books of 2020 and I love learning Lebanon’s and Sara’s backstories. Those who’ve read Saving Ruby King will enjoy finding out more about the character Sara’s early life. Usually, when a prequel arrives, I suggest reading it first, but in this case, I’m glad I read about Ruby first. I enjoyed learning about Ruby for herself then reading about Sara and learning more about why she acted as she did. There’s a whole lot of hurt in both novels, but they also offer the beauty of community, friendship, and love. Whichever one you choose to read first will inform the other. Each novel stands alone and both beg you to discuss with a book club or on a walk with a friend.

In The Two Lives of Sara, Sara tries to close herself off from emotional entanglements since she’s been hurt deeply by childhood trauma and the assault that resulted in her son’s birth. It’s even difficult for her to hold Lebanon since he reminds her of her past. Mama Sugar and her family and friends treat Lebanon and Sara with loving kindness and soon Sara begins to respond.

“I scoop Lebanon up from the high chair and set him on my lap and the crying stops. . . .

“See, when you patient and happy. He’s patient and happy like that, Sara-girl,” says Mama Sugar.

It’s odd to feel something resembling happiness looking at him. And he lays his head on my shoulder. Yes. He has my nose and lips. He dozes. Curly hair tickles my neck. He doesn’t seem heavy, at least not as heavy as he did other mornings.”

Soon the heaviness of her earlier life and its burdens start to lift from Sara’s shoulders and she befriends Mama Sugar’s bookish grandson William. Through their connection, she falls in love with Jonas, William’s challenging teacher. 

The community welcomes Sara and Lebanon and Sara wants more. “Friendships are strange evolving collections of laughter and fights and secrets, this rarified brew of humanity you choose to share with another person. And I want that again. To feel close to someone. To share with someone. The way I did in Chicago.” 

Will her desires be enough to overcome the hurt of the church when Black life in Memphis is so tied to the church? 

“I believed when I was young, when I walked past my church’s doors, nothing could hurt me, but that was a silly, childish notion, to let a building, a church, make me feel safe. . . . all I see is Calvary Hope Christian Church, a place that saw the best and worst of who I was, the best and worst of everyone that walked through its doors.”

Throughout it all, the music, the food, the traditions of HBCU schools like Morehouse and Spelman, and the difficulties of being Black in Memphis in the early 1960s make this novel sing with authenticity. When Jonas and Sara stop at a Memphis housing project, Sara says, “Use to think we had it better up North. You know we got a housing project named after Ida B. Wells? She spent her whole life fighting injustice, and they slapped her name on a building that keeps it going.”

“White people build these places to keep us and them separate. Put the names of our people on them like they’ve done us a service. It’s disgraceful,” says Jonas.

What happens next is Sara’s story to tell and is a poignant, heartfelt tale of resilience when love may not be enough. It demonstrates that Catherine Adel West is no one-hit-wonder. This reader will be anxiously awaiting her next effort.

Summing it Up: Read The Two Loves of Sara to immerse yourself in the food, music, church traditions, and camaraderie of early 1960s Black Memphis. Relish the complexity of every character in the novel from wounded, yet strong Sara to those who make poor decisions and men and women who encourage others to survive and thrive. Select The Two Lives of Sara for your book club for a discussion that will practically lead itself.  This novel of love, trauma, resiliency, religion, and prejudice is both a page-turner and a novel you’ll long contemplate.

Rating: Five Stars

Publication Date: September 6, 2022

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

Author Website: https://www.catherineadelwest.com/ 

Book Club Discussion Kit: https://www.catherineadelwest.com/uploads/1/3/1/4/131492292/two_lives_of_sara_book_club_kit.pdf (I’ve led hundreds of book discussions and this is the most complete, beautiful, and inspiring book club kit I’ve seen. It begs you to select the book for your book club.)

Read an Excerpt: https://preview.aer.io/The_Two_Lives_of_Sara-NDQ5MTA3?social=1&retail=1&emailcap=0

Author Interview: https://www.shelf-awareness.com/max-issue.html?issue=476#m991 

What Others are Saying:

Booklist: “West writes with charming precision and intention. Every character is a beautiful, relatable complication. Both masterfully suspenseful and certain to tug at the reader's heartstrings, The Two Lives of Sara solidifies West as a literary force.”  --Booklist (Starred Review)

Kirkus Reviews:  https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/catherine-adel-west/the-two-lives-of-sara/ 

“A gripping reflection on our need to be loved and our fear of rejection, Catherine Adel West crafts a timeless and complex narrative of family, loss, and what it means to lose faith in religion and ourselves. Sara King and the family she finds at the Scarlet Poplar will stay with you long after the final page.” —Lane Clarke, author of Love Times Infinity

"The Two Lives of Sara is a stellar follow-up for Catherine Adel West. The relationships surrounding Sara King are nuanced, complex, and full of small moments that stick with you long after you are done. West has a direct and precise prose that goes straight to the heart of the characters, the story, and the reader." --Morg Rogers, author of Honey Girl 

Thursday, September 1, 2022

News of the Air by Jill Stukenberg

News of the Air is Jill Stukenberg’s first novel and it epitomizes the heart and sense of place that often marks fine debut efforts. Winner of the Big Moose Prize, it affords a distinct view of the north woods in a not-so-distant future when ecological disasters force many city dwellers to seek new homes in northern wilderness locations. 

Years after the towers fell on 911, Allie Krane, who grew up in the Chicago suburbs and had been living in the city with her husband Bud, decided that the frequent checkpoints and invasions of their privacy in Chicago weren’t what she wanted for the baby she was carrying. She and her amiable librarian husband bought a rundown resort in Wisconsin’s northern woods not far from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Their baby Cassie was now ready to attend the local school for her senior year after having been homeschooled all her life. Their little town’s grocery and the library where Bud worked when they first arrived had closed and there was little in the way of commerce or government services close to them.

Tourists still stayed in their cabins, but more frequently they welcomed people escaping the devastating effects of climate change and government interventions or those reinventing themselves. Allie and Bud’s relationship seems to be suffering from the landscape and their different views on how to survive and raise their daughter. Cassie herself, a unique and wonderful character, is emerging from the aftermath of a classmate’s suicide and her own concerns about where she belongs. 

Stukenberg is at her best in her depiction of the land and people living there. Who belongs to this place? What does it mean to those who think they’re escaping to it and what does it mean to those who contemplate escaping from it? Multi-dimensional characters encountering a changing world contemplate the meaning of home and family in this novel that explores several intriguing topics.

Summing it Up: Rarely does a novel that examines issues like climate change and greed offer both grist for a book discussion and an escape novel that could be read quickly while overlooking a stream in a Northwoods resort. News of the Air offers a glimpse of the Northwoods of the future that’s eerily realistic and is also a fine character study of marriage and family dynamics. This reader is hoping for a sequel about Cassie as she’s a character readers won’t want to leave behind.

Rating: 4 Stars

Publication Date: September 1, 2022

Category: Fiction, Grandma’s Pot Roast, Book Club

Author Website:  https://jillstukenberg.com/

Read an Excerpt: https://bloomsite.wordpress.com/2022/08/02/an-excerpt-from-jill-stukenbergs-debut-novel-news-of-the-air/ 

Reading Group/Teaching Guide: https://blacklawrencepress.com/wp-content/uploads/Teaching-Guide-for-News-of-the-Air.pdf 

What Others Are Saying: 

Foreword Reviews: https://www.forewordreviews.com/reviews/news-of-the-air/ 

Jill Stukenberg writes the rural north as if she was born with one hand on the throttle of an outboard motor and the other taking notes on the back of a beer napkin. In News Of The Air she offers an unknowable, imagined future that is utterly plausible.  –Sarah Stonich, Vacationland

Jill Stukenberg’s News of the Air is an unforgettable novel of our troubled moment. No relationship, private or public, is insulated from the dangers of a collapsing nation drowning, afire, poisoned, profoundly divided. The mother/daughter relationships at the novel’s center capture perfectly the countless ramifications that come from toxic secrets and from ignoring the truth. The many memorable characters here are marked by the intensifying grief and pain of learning to leave: learning to leave behind their limiting romantic notions of home; learning how and when to transcend their “bare loneliness” and to, at last, disappear into a new honest condition of discovery. Reading News of the Air is truly a life-changing experience.  –Kevin McIlvoy, One Kind Favor

The North Woods. Who escapes to it? Who escapes from it? In News of the Air, a novel set in that mystery-filled world, author Jill Stukenberg explores the two questions with a keen eye and a literate pen.  

Stukenberg knows the denizens of The Woods: the owner of the run-down bar; the city exec with a showy cabin and expensive weekend parties; the struggling owner of a small resort. These, as well as the folks who surround them, are tangled in mysteries that only The Woods can weave.  –Faith Sullivan, Good Night, Mr. Wodehouse

News of the Air is a dreamy, mysterious, novel of the Northwoods. A book about regret and loss, love and friendship – all set in and around a familiar Wisconsin lake resort where the visitors and locals comprise a compelling cast of characters. The perfect novel for a hammock or comfortable fireside chair. –Nickolas Butler, Shotgun Lovesongs and Godspeed