Sunday, September 17, 2023

Harbor Springs Festival of the Book


This week feels like Christmas felt when I was a child. It’s the Harbor Springs Festival of the Book in Harbor Springs, Michigan and I not only have the privilege of attending, but I also will be introducing fourteen authors when they read from their books. Festival registration is sold out, but you can read along with us. Below is a list of the featured books that I’ve read with a brief synopsis of each to whet your appetites. There’s enough variety to offer something for every literary taste. There are also several other authors attending whose works I haven’t yet read. Find them and other information about the festival including events that are open to the public and possible ticket availability at If you are registered for the festival, I’ve listed the schedule of the Book & Bag readings after the book synopses. 


Fuentes, Javier, Countries of Origin is a page-turner that explores fear of falling in love, of being gay, and of not knowing where you belong because of immigration laws and class divides. Demitrio, who came to the U.S. as a child from Spain, is a highly regarded pastry chef who returns to the country he never knew because he fears deportation. He meets Jacobo, an extremely wealthy Spaniard, on the flight and their attraction leads to difficulties. The novel embeds the reader in Demitrio’s life and makes us care deeply about his decisions and the implications for society as a whole.

Harding, Paul, This Other Eden, Pulitzer Prize winner Harding’s novel is inspired by one of the first integrated places in the Northeast, an island off the Maine coast. The writing is luminous and lyrical, reading like a prose poem. In 1911, a Governor’s Council preaching eugenics examined and decided to remove the families that had been on the island since 1792. The mesmerizing, mixed Penobscot, African, and Irish characters, especially fair-skinned Ethan, a self-taught artist, are glorious. The descriptions of Ethan’s art are phenomenal and the way the book makes the reader ponder race and power makes it perfect for discussion. When Ethan first encountered ice, I felt like I saw it for the first time as well. It’s one of the best books I’ve read this year, and it illuminates important issues. 

Heller, Peter, The Last Ranger, Ren Hopper, now in his thirties, is a competent, cerebral Yellowstone Park ranger. He became a ranger after his wife died and he needed nature, and specifically fishing, to cope with his grief. His love of fishing comes from his estranged, alcoholic mother. Ren is ambivalent about life, but he isn’t equivocal about the stupidity of Yellowstone’s visitors leaving him feeling that his ilk will be the last to care enough about saving bears, bison, wolves, and nature. When he rescues his best friend Hilly after she’s been left to die in a wolf trap, he’s sure he knows who trapped and left her and tries to stop him before Hilly or others die. Gorgeous, poetic prose and sentences that beg to be read aloud make this character-driven novel unique. Heller’s fans should also read his magnificent Dog Stars, The Painter, and the River.

Jackson, Jenny, Pineapple Street is a sharp, well-played comedy of manners with a subtle nod to finding meaning beyond one’s privileges. The Stockton family has quiet wealth. Tennis-playing, tablescape-making matriarch Tilda’s father and brother were New York Governors and her husband Chip also comes from generational wealth. They’ve just moved a few blocks into a smaller home in Brooklyn Heights allowing son Cord and his outsider, middle-class wife Sasha to move into, but not to alter their family home. Darley, the elder daughter, married to a brilliant, successful son of Korean immigrants, quit her finance job to rear her young children and signed off on her inheritance rather than ask her husband to sign a prenup. Much younger daughter Georgiana works for a nonprofit but spends most of her time playing tennis or partying until she falls in love and her life veers. The novel skews classism with cleverness and somehow makes you care about people you might not normally like. It’s deliciously observant while offering a hilarious escape. 

Marra, Anthony, Mercury Pictures Presents, Maria escapes Mussolini’s Italy for California while her father remains there having been sentenced to “confino” for his anti-fascist activism. She begins as a typist at Mercury Pictures,  works under the head of the studio, and soon becomes a producer. She falls in love with a Chinese-American actor who can't get work because of his ethnicity. The novel offers a detailed view of prewar Hollywood and the motion picture industry. The final chapters brilliantly tie the characters’ lives together and are exceptional. Clever dialogue and humor make misogyny and prejudice palatable reading.

Miller, Nathaniel Ian, The Memoirs of Stockholm Sven, Sven leaves Stockholm in 1916 to work in the mines in Svalbard, an Arctic archipelago, and begins keeping notes about his life. After losing an eye and becoming disfigured in an avalanche, he escapes farther from civilization to a desolate fjord with his faithful dog. Friendships with Finnish trapper Tapio and a well-read Scotsman help him survive and a surprise visitor arrives. This remarkable novel blends dry wit with lush, yet concise depictions of the harsh landscape and the belief that we all need someone to love. I adore every character in this wonder of a novel. 

Millet, Lydia, Dinosaurs, Gil has more money than he’ll ever need so after his longtime girlfriend leaves him, he abandons New York for a new life in Phoenix. He walks the entire way learning about the land and himself. His new neighbors live in a glass house offering him uninterrupted access to their daily lives. He becomes close to them and their son, Tom, who’s being bullied at school. Gil astutely observes the nature around him and is alarmed when he finds numerous bird corpses shot by an anonymous hunter behind his home. His continued friendships with his New York mates and new neighbors offer a meditation on caring for ourselves, others, and our world. This is a kind novel that celebrates connection and love. I continue to find myself thinking about Gil when I walk.

Offill, Jenny, Weather focuses attention on Lizzie, a college librarian, who seems to be all things to those within her realm. She counsels her mother, tries to keep her brother safe and sober, and answers emails for a podcast about climate change and weather, yet just dropping her son off at school overwhelms her. Lizzie’s marriage feels tenuous yet kind. Offill’s taut sentences, wit, and piercing paragraphs break through the commonplace to create a powerful novel. 

Thai, Thao, Banyan Moon follows three generations of women beginning with Minh who left Vietnam with her two children in 1973. She's lived for decades in a deteriorating Gothic house where she raised her family. When her granddaughter Ann, newly pregnant and living with her professor boyfriend on a Michigan lake, learns of Minh’s death, she heads south to her estranged mother Hu’o’ng. Told in three viewpoints weaving between present-day Florida and 1960s Vietnam, the novel explores the power of secrets, inherited trauma, love, and the things we carry. Minh’s descriptions of Vietnam during the war and after the “white allies left,” are brilliant and haunting. Thai cleverly reveals the secrets in this novel at just the right time. 

Warrell, Laura, Sweet, Soft, Plenty Rhythm embeds the reader in the lives of Circus Palmer, a jazz trumpet player and ladies’ man, and the complex women surrounding him. Circus walks away from a woman he loves upon learning that she’s pregnant and thus continues his longtime habit of emotional avoidance. Evading his teenage daughter Koko when her mother abandons her is different, or is it? Two sentences near the novel’s end show how love grows and changes. Quoting them would be a spoiler, so to paraphrase: somewhere over time, one becomes someone who has love and another becomes someone in need of it. The novel beautifully reflects the music playing in Circus’s mind.

Zigman, Small World envisions the world of newly divorced Joyce who works at home in her Cambridge apartment. She welcomes her sister Lydia into her home when Lydia moves East after her divorce. Hoping to forge a new relationship and re-examine their childhood that dealt with the care of and the grief after the death of their disabled sister, the women are uneasy when loud neighbors move in above them and Joyce, in particular, finds herself adrift and annoyed. Dry humor and well-drawn characters make this family saga meaningful and poignant. 

Mysteries, Suspense, and Thrillers

Pavone, Chris, Two Nights in Lisbon, Ariel and John, her husband of less than a year, are in Lisbon on a business trip. On their first morning, Ariel awakens and John is gone. She soon receives a demand for 3 million euros. Within two days, Ariel and John’s lives are dissected by the police and the CIA. Is what happened to Ariel 14 years ago connected to John’s kidnapping? Is Ariel in danger because of a secret about a politician? This propulsive novel of love and power will keep you flipping the pages. Who can you believe?

Slocumb, Brendan, Symphony of Secrets Slocumb follows his blockbuster The Violin Conspiracy with a tale weaving classical music and prejudice against Black scholars in the field. Frederic Delaney is Bern Hendrick’s favorite composer. Bern has devoted most of his academic career in musicology to studying Delaney’s masterpieces. The last of Delaney’s operas has been lost for decades so when the Delaney Foundation, the organization that funded Hendrick’s schooling, offers Bern the chance to work on the newly discovered lost opera manuscript, he's ecstatic. He brings in his friend Eboni, a computer analyst who’s worked on other operas, and together they find evidence of a fascinating Black woman who lived with Delaney who might have written some of his work. A clever mystery with an underlying message.

Swanson, Peter, The Kind Worth Saving makes the reader wonder who the good guys are. Joan hires former teacher and police officer Henry Kimball to learn if her husband is cheating on her. Henry was Joan’s high school teacher and both were in the classroom when a student shot and killed Joan’s best friend then himself. Flashbacks to Joan and her husband Richard’s encounter as teens on vacation in Maine add an ominous note. The sinister twists in this character-driven mystery keep the reader guessing. 


Finkel, Michael, The Art Thief: A True Story of Love, Crime, and a Dangerous Obsession tells the surprising tale of St├ęphane Breitwieser who began stealing art from small European museums at age 25. By the time he was caught, he'd stolen more than 200 times and his collection, which he kept in his attic rooms above his mother’s home, was thought to be worth $2 billion. He never wanted to sell his treasures; he simply enjoyed gazing upon them with his girlfriend beside him. Finkel’s research makes the bizarre story compelling. 

Murphy, Finn, Rocky Mountain High: A Tale of Boom and Bust in the New Wild West, When 61-year-old Murphy moves to Colorado he has his previous entrepreneurial success and enough capital to enter the booming legal hemp industry. What could go wrong with an enterprise where no one has experience, the land and short season work against raising the product, the market is mercurial at best, and shipping rules make no sense? Everything—and it does! Murphy’s humorous rendition of almost losing it all along with his clever and tender tales of the people he meets, make this a winner.

Ruhl, Sarah, Smile: A Memoir shares playwright Ruhl’s story of losing her ability to smile and move much of her face when she contracted Bell’s palsy after giving birth. Her opening sentences make the reader want to learn more: “Ten years ago, my smile walked off my face, and wandered out in the world. This is the story of my asking it to come back, this is a story of how I learned to make my way when my body stopped obeying my heart.” That’s all you need to know. Read it; it will touch you deeply.

Middle Grade Fiction

Monsef, Kiyash, Once There Was, 15-year-old Marjan’s veterinarian father was murdered and she’s left alone and adrift when she’s called to heal a mythological creature and learns that she’s part of an ancient line with the ability to heal fantastical animals. Tweens and teens will love meeting a griffin, a unicorn, and other beasts, but there’s still a murder to solve and Marjan’s grief to address.  “But the people of the tribe understood some things can be true and not true at once, and that a story is a thread that can be woven into the world, until it is as solid as a carpet beneath one’s foot.” This book offers a magic carpet ride for those age ten and older.

Young Adult

Craig, Erin A., House of Roots and Ruin is a stand-alone sequel to the 2019 hit Secrets of Salt and Sorrow. This gothic thriller/fantasy is filled with ghosts, demons, and an imagined world that never interferes with the well-told story. Is Verity cursed? So many in her family have died that many consider them doomed. When Verity is commissioned to paint a portrait of Alexander, the disabled heir of a neighboring kingdom, she goes despite her older sister refusing her permission to leave. What secrets is Alexander’s father hiding? Teens will beg for a third installment. 

Stork, Francisco X., I Am Not Alone features 17-year-old Alberto, an undocumented house painter living with his sister and her baby. Alberto hears voices that frighten him while creating fine pottery calms him. He meets Grace, a probable valedictorian living a structured life while confused after her father leaves her mother. When Alberto is mugged and accused of murder, Grace must decide whether to leave her safe cocoon to help him. The story illuminates early schizophrenia and mental health challenges and focuses on courage and kindness. 

Book & Bag Readings 

  • Friday, September 22, 2023

  • 11:45 AM  1:30 PM

  • Holy Childhood Parish Hall 

  • Beginning at 11:45, authors are introduced at 15-minute intervals to read selections from their featured works. This is a come-and-go session, where attendees may simply sit and listen or enjoy their lunch.

Javier Fuentes 11:45 am                                                     

Thao Thai  12:00 pm                                                            

Nathaniel Ian Miller -  12:15 pm                                

Laura Warrell - 12:30 pm

Chris Pavone - 12:45 pm

Laura Zigman - 1:00pm

Finn Murphy - 1:15 pm

Introductions: Trina Hayes

  • Saturday, September 23, 2023

  • 11:45 AM  1:30 PM

  • Holy Childhood Parish Hall 

  • Beginning at 11:45, authors are introduced at 15-minute intervals to read selections from their featured works. This is a come-and-go session, where attendees may simply sit and listen or enjoy their lunch.

Erin A. Craig - 11:45 am                                                          

Brendan Slocumb- 12:00 pm                                         

Kiyash Monsef - 12:15 pm                                           

Gina Balibrera (Good Hart Artist Residency) - 12:30

Anthony Marra - 12:45 pm

Francisco X. Stork - 1:00 pm

Peter Swanson - 1:15 pm

Introductions: Trina Hayes