Friday, December 1, 2023

The Annual List—2023 Edition


“The Yellow Books” painting by Vincent Van Gogh, pictured above, reminds me of my year of reading. I was often surrounded by stacks of beckoning titles that accompanied me through the year. My life, like most lives, was filled with days spent rushing from one task to another alongside times when I sat waiting for appointments or for people to complete work and I was grateful for books that didn't require concentration. Thankfully, the busy days and those spent waiting often ended with hours enveloped by exceptional titles I was able to devour without interruption on my screened porch or inside with my feet perched on my favorite ottoman. May you find just the right book to fill your hunger when you most need it.

Hungry for Good Books? Annual Book List, 2023

©Copyright December 1, 2023, 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 reviews on my blog. All books listed were published in 2023 unless noted otherwise.

General Fiction and Poetry

Allende, Isabel, The Wind Knows My Name moves between decades beginning in 1938 Austria when five-year-old Samuel is sent to England to escape the Nazis. It follows him to California and his life with his colorful wife and then as a widow living with a San Salvadoran caregiver during the pandemic. It blends the story of Anita, a seven-year-old San Salvadoran refugee awaiting an asylum hearing in Arizona, with the tale of the social worker and a lawyer trying to help the girl and find her mother. It’s short on character development and long on melodrama. I hoped for more. CC/PP

+Andrews, Mary Kay, Bright Lights, Big Christmas is the quintessential holiday romance readers have come to expect from Andrews. Every November Murphy Tolliver and his dad head to the same NYC corner to sell their homegrown Fraser firs at prices they’d never get in North Carolina. This year Murphy’s dad has been hospitalized and his ex-wife, Murphy’s mom, is nursing him, so neither can make the trip. Younger sister Kerry, whose recent job loss leaves her with the time if not the inclination to help, reluctantly fills in driving “Spammy,” the 1963 Shasta trailer, to the city and staying to sell trees. Everyone knows Murphy and the entire neighborhood welcomes Kerry, especially young Austin and his newly divorced dad Patrick. When graphic artist Kerry and Austin befriend a hermit-like old man and begin writing a story together, love blooms. The Hallmark Channel in a novel. D

+Brooks, Geraldine, Horse is set primarily in the 1800s South as a young, enslaved Jarrett, a fabulous character, trains Lexington, the greatest horse of the century, and in 2019 when Jess and Theo study a painting featuring the horse. Theo, a black man reared in Australia and Britain, educated at Yale, and getting his Ph.D. at Georgetown, knows art and is wary of American prejudice. Jess, a white woman/osteologist at the Smithsonian, knows animal structure but little about human interaction and she fears insulting Theo. The language is gorgeous, the theme of race is well explored and the writing is almost perfect with sentences like: “She loved the term “articulate” because it was so apt: a really good mount allowed a species to tell its own story, to say what it was like when it breathed and ran, dived or soared.” I found the ending rushed and felt Theo was owed a more nuanced treatment. The racing scenes are magnificent. G/GPR/PP/SN, BC (2022)

+Brooks-Dalton, Lily, The Light Pirate portrays the dying state of Florida in the future as frequent hurricanes and rising water levels threaten. As the latest hurricane approaches, Kirby’s boys disappear. While he searches for them, his wife Frida gives birth to baby Wanda alone. The book follows the precocious Wanda through decades of losses that mirror her abandoned town and state. The four parts: power, water, light, and time offer an enlightening, yet bleak, view of climate change and the future while offering exceptional, multi-dimensional characters filled with hope and a touch of magic realism. GPR/SN, BC (2022)

*#Brown, Donnaldson, Because I Loved You is a unique saga with wonderful, flawed characters that evokes its East Texas landscape. Caleb and Leni are teens who care more about their horses than people until they find each other. The novel shows how hard it can be for damaged souls to risk loving fully and emphasizes the importance of becoming who you're meant to be. GPR/PP, BC

+Buchanan, Tracey D., Toward the Corner of Mercy and Peace is set in 1952 Paducah, KY where 52-year-old Minerva Place, a crabby, judgmental church organist and piano teacher, spends much of her time creating stories about the deceased townspeople she visits in a nearby cemetery. Soon, she begins seeing and talking with them and prefers to be left alone with them. Then, a six-year-old boy and his father move into the neighborhood and try to engage her in life. Dry humor enlivens this debut novel. GPR/PP

*Butland, Stephanie, Found in a Bookshop, Loveday owns a bookshop in York, England. It’s closed due to Covid and has no revenue. Kelly, a bookseller, fears she’ll lose her job and she and Loveday create a “book pharmacy” after receiving a letter from a customer asking them to send her books. They soon have a lucrative business finding and sometimes delivering books. The book suggestions will keep the most avid reader busy and the lives of those requesting books are fascinating. Romance and betrayal offer interest, but the books are the stars. It’s a stand-alone sequel. D/SBP/SF, BC

+Butland, Stephanie, The Lost for Words Bookshop shares Loveday’s time working with Archie in his York, England bookstore and the backstory she hides of her life after her father’s death, her mother’s incarceration, and her time in foster care. She loves the store, books, and her new boyfriend. It’s a charmer filled with books, kindness, and the trauma of abuse. GPR/SBP (2017)

+Colgan, Jenny, The Bookshop on the Shore, Zoe wants to escape London with her nonverbal four-year-old son Hari so she takes a job as an au pair in a castle in the Scottish Highlands and a second post working at a bookshop. Hari loves it, but the kids she’s watching have been kicked out of school and it’s all such a challenge. Nina, the bookseller, helps her adjust and the bookstore itself  is pure delight. It’s part of a series but stands alone well. D/SBP (2019)

+Colgan, Jenny, Christmas at Little Beach Street Bakery is pure delight with enough humor and realistic dialogue to make it feel honest despite the fairy tale setting and depiction of over-the-top wealth. Polly, a baker, is everyone’s lifeline on their tiny Cornwall island. She and her calm and steady American boyfriend Huckle live happily in an inconvenient lighthouse. When her pregnant best friend, who’s married to ultra-wealthy Reuben, shares a secret, the burden of it causes friction. This works as a stand-alone despite being the third in a series. A caring Christmas treat. D/SBP (2017)

+Colgan, Jenny, 500 Miles from You begins as Lissa, a nurse, visits patients in a deprived London neighborhood and witnesses a hit and run: the seemingly deliberate killing of a teen she knows. She experiences PTSD so her supervisor asks her to swap jobs with a nurse in an isolated town in the Scottish Highlands for three months thinking the quiet will be healing. Cormac, the nurse/paramedic she switches with, isn’t keen on the bustle of London but is ready for a change. The two email daily to report on patients and soon forge a connection. I wanted an additional 100 pages so their meeting could have had the depth and impact found in the rest of the book. I don’t cry often, but the hit and run and aftermath were so well written, that they captured me. A lovely escape enriched by its sensitive handling of depression and organ transplants. D/GPR/SBP/SF (2020)

+Colgan, Jenny . . . The School by the Sea novels were just what I needed when I contracted a mild case of Covid. With few symptoms other than being tired, I wanted entertainment as I quarantined and these boarding school tales delivered. They form one book with each an installment of one school term. The addition of poetry taught by Maggie, the main character, elevates them above simple rom-coms. They were first published under a pseudonym and reissued. 

        +Colgan, Jenny, Welcome to the School by the Sea: Book 1, Maggie, a new teacher, Simone, an overweight scholarship girl, and the other faculty and pupils at the school and the adjacent boys school in Cornwall make for a light, humorous, romantic tale. D (2008, reissue 2022)

        +Colgan, Jenny, Rules at the School by the Sea: Book 2, Maggie and her hometown fiancé Stan are planning their wedding and she’s trying to forget David, the teacher at the nearby boy’s school on whom she’s had a crush. Problems with her students and the Head Teacher’s secret add intrigue. Using  Maya Angelou’s poem “Phenomenal Woman” is brilliant. “I’m a woman Phenomenally. Phenomenal woman, That’s me.” D (2009, reissue 2022)

        +Colgan, Jenny, Lessons at the School by the Sea: Book 3, Maggie broke off her engagement with Stan and David has been fired from his job after a misjudgment in pursuing Maggie. Maggie’s employment is dependent on her not contacting David who’s teaching in another school. D (2009, reissue 2023)

+Conklin, Tara, Community Board, After 29-year-old Darcy’s husband leaves her for his skydiving instructor, her boss grants her a leave of absence to heal so she heads to her small-town, childhood home. Meanwhile, her parents have gone to Arizona, so Darcy relies on their canned goods supply to hide from life until a series of small jobs forces her to meet people and the online community board engages her gift of repartee. This quirky, zany, comic novel is a treat that differs from her previous, more serious books but still has heft. D/S 

Day, Jamie, The Block Party is a light, clever, somewhat suspense-filled drama packed with family secrets. Alex, one of the block Moms, drinks too much and her husband and daughter know it. All the characters have secrets and some seek revenge. It’s plot-driven and has little character development. CC

*Doerr, Anthony, Cloud Cuckoo Land, shortlisted for the National Book Award, is a multi-layered story about how a book, storytelling, libraries, and hope help adolescents comprehend the world and how their resilience is a force for good. Following the last copy of an ancient book from 15th century Constantinople through Italy, present-day Idaho, and a spaceship in the future, the book relays Aethon’s desire to become a bird and fly to paradise. It’s also the tale of Omeir and his oxen forced into invading Constantinople, of Anna, a girl in the besieged city, of Konstance, a girl alone in the future, and of the wonder that is Zeno, an octogenarian working with Idaho children to adapt Aethon’s story into a play. It’s primarily about courage, imagination, and storytelling. This book requires the reader's attention and rewards it with an almost magical understanding of love and courage. Most of my book club members were glad they read it, with a few not finishing it. Read it. G/PP (2021)

+Diaz, Hernan, Trust envisions the life of one of America’s wealthiest financiers during the 1920s and beyond. The first section: a novel called “Bonds” depicts financier Benjamin Rask as an impenetrable egoist. Part Two shows the life of Andrew Bevel, on whom the novel Bonds was based, told in his own words with notes to clarify and provide more data. Part Three is told by a young woman hired to take Bevel’s dictation and amplify his thoughts. Part Four is brief and magnificent with a twist I won’t reveal. It shared the 2023 Pulitzer Prize with Demon Copperhead. I found it fascinating and the premise was ingenious. I recommend it for its craft and the brilliant depiction of misogyny. It’s reminiscent of Edith Wharton. G/PP, BC (2022)

*Erlick, Nikki, The Measure, One morning, every adult on earth receives an indestructible wooden box inscribed “The measure of your life lies within.” Each box contains a string indicating the amount of time the recipient has left to live. Almost immediately, the world changes, with short stringers experiencing discrimination and eight main characters each taking a different approach to the strings they’ve been dealt. The unique premise forms a parable filled with love and grieving that offers hope and insight. This should be discussed in all book clubs. So much to ponder. It was a Read with Jenna pick. GPR/S/SF, BC (2022)

+Fuentes, Javier, Countries of Origin is a page-turner that explores the fear of falling in love, being gay, and not knowing where you belong because of immigration laws and class divides. Demetrio, who came to the U.S. as a child, is a fine pastry chef who returns to the country he never knew because he fears deportation. He meets Jacobo, a wealthy Spaniard, on the flight and their attraction leads to difficulties. “Up until now, I had considered myself to have two countries of origin, and the notion that I could always establish myself in my other homeland had reinforced the belief that I was inhabiting the space voluntarily. That was no longer the case.” CC/GPR/SN, BC

+Garvin, Eileen, The Music of Bees, Alice lives alone on land that was home to her family's apple orchard. She works for the county and expects a promotion, but when it doesn’t come, she quits her job to concentrate on raising bees and fighting a conglomerate moving to the area with chemicals that will kill her bees and destroy her community. After she almost runs over Jake, a teen in a wheelchair, on a deserted road, she takes him home and observing his father’s cruelty, offers the boy a temporary place to live in her home. He has an affinity for the bees and wants to work with them, but she needs someone able to do more than his disability allows. When 24-year-old Harry, recently out of prison, arrives, his skills complement Jake’s so he moves into the barn and the unique trio supports each other. The debut celebrates familial love, healing, and growth. It cleverly teaches the reader about beekeeping and bees while exploring the theme of community in hives and life. GPR/SN, BC (2022)

+#Gayle, Mike, The Museum of Ordinary People is a feel-good dessert of a novel. Jess is overwhelmed with grief after her Trinidadian mother’s death. After cleaning out her home, Jess has kept a few things and given others to charity shops. Jess shares a small apartment with her white boyfriend Guy, a minimalist, and there isn't room for her beloved set of encyclopedias, but no charity shops will take them. Jess’s friend learns of the Museum of Ordinary People, a warehouse that takes such items and everything changes. D/SBP

*George, Jessica, Maame is a clever, kind, and caring debut that explores responsible Maddie’s life living with and minding her father with advanced Parkinson’s while her mother stays primarily in Ghana and her brother never comes around.  At work, Maddie does everything yet gets no respect and then unfairly loses her job. Being the only Black person in most work situations and trying to ignore countless micro-aggressions add to her stress. Just as Maddie gets a new job, tragedy strikes. The pressure of being a “good” daughter, the discomfort of not fitting into her two cultures, and the need to figure out who she is makes Maddie a phenomenal character. Couldn’t put it down. It was a Read with Jenna pick. GPR/SBP, BC

+Gray, Anissa, Life and Other Love Songs explores a family dealing with the effects of trauma. On his 37th birthday, while his wife Deborah and daughter Trinity were planning a surprise party for him, Ozro waved goodbye to his brother Tommy after their lunch,  walked toward his office, and disappeared. The novel shows Ozro and Deborah falling in love in 1962 in Detroit and their seemingly happy life in the suburbs with their daughter. Deborah spent years searching for clues to the disappearance. Ozro, Tommy, and their mother had escaped racial prejudice and a father who treated them badly when they migrated north, but this reader wonders if Ozro truly escaped. It’s a thoughtful rendering of the difficulties of living with buried trauma. GPR, BC

*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 who 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 his art are phenomenal and the way the book makes the reader ponder race and power make it perfect for discussion. When Ethan first encountered ice, I felt like I saw it for the first time. It’s one of the best books I’ve read this year, and it illuminates important issues. Finalist for the National Book Award and Booker Prize. G/PP/SN, BC 

+Heller, Peter, The Last Ranger, Ren Hopper, in his thirties, is a competent, cerebral Yellowstone Park ranger. He became a ranger after his wife died and he needed nature, specifically fishing, to help with his grief. His love of fishing comes from his estranged, alcoholic mother, leaving him ambivalent about life. Ren isn’t equivocal about the stupidity of Yellowstone’s visitors though he feels 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. G/SN, BC

+Henry, Emily, Happy Place is a light romance about close friends who gather every year in a Maine beach cottage. This year is different because the cottage is being sold and Win and Harriet have broken up but haven’t told anyone so they’re pretending they’re still together. The novel shows why we need to be honest about what we need for ourselves instead of for others while it celebrates friendship. It’s sexy and fun but not as rich as her previous novels. D

+Hilderbrand, Elin, Five Star Weekend, if you want a decent, page-turner,  beach read with a happily-ever-after ending, this is it. Five friends gather at the Nantucket beach home of newly widowed, lifestyle blogger Hollis, and talk turns to secrets, sex, and past resentments while forgiveness looms on the horizon. D

Hoover, Colleen, It Starts with Us, the stand-alone sequel to It Ends with Us, is a fast-paced romance packed with unremarkable sex scenes. It wisely explores domestic violence and the idea that even after making a careful decision to leave an abuser, the connection of a shared child complicates matters. It’s predictable, but Hoover’s fans will still love it. I didn’t. CC (2022)

+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 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. The novel skews classism with cleverness and manages to make you care about people you might not normally like. It’s deliciously observant while offering a hilarious escape. It was a GMA pick. GPR/CC/D/S, BC

+Jiles, Paulette, Chenneville, John Chenneville was injured near the end of the Civil War and was hospitalized and unconscious for almost a year. Upon returning to his family land north of St. Louis, he learned that his only sister, her husband, and their baby had been brutally murdered by Albert Dodd, a deputy sheriff, in southern Missouri. In Jiles’ characteristically poetic prose, she illuminates the landscape and makes every inch of the recovering Chenneville come alive. When he sets out for Texas to seek revenge on Dodd, he meets an engaging telegrapher and others wronged by the evil miscreant. The writing and characters are spectacular, but the quick plot resolution at the book’s end left me wanting more. G/PP, BC

+Joyce, Rachel, Maureen is the third book in the Harold Fry series following the phenomenal The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry and the poignant The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessey. Originally titled Maureen Fry and the Angel of the North in Britain, this 192-page novel completes the saga with Maureen’s journey to Queenie’s garden. It’s a solid reflection on forgiveness and love that starts slowly and isn’t as satisfying as her earlier novels. GPR/SF 

*Kim, Angie, Happiness Falls begins when 14-year-old Eugene, who is non-verbal due to autism and Angelman Syndrome, returns from a hike without his father Adam, a white, stay-at-home dad who cares for Eugene and studies what makes us happy. He calls it our “Happiness Quotient.” Narrated by Eugene’s sister, 20-year-old Mia, a pessimist, the book begins as a mystery about a missing dad. Mother Hannah is a Korean-born linguist adding to the irony and highlighting that Eugene, the only one who knows what happened, can't communicate. This multi-layered novel will make you ponder race, disability, happiness, and being different. Both a page-turner and a novel that will force you to question why we equate oral fluency with intelligence, why we assume that some people are happy and others aren't, and why happiness is elusive, Happiness Falls is a must-read. It was a GMA pick. GPR/SN, BC

+Knox, Maggie (pen name for duo Karma Brown and Marissa Stapely), The Holiday Swap is a light romantic Christmas tale with twins switching places so Charlie won't lose her L.A. cooking show gig after a concussion leaves her temporarily without a sense of smell. Cass connects with an ER doc and Charlie falls for a small-town firefighter. It's a Hallmark-style escape. D (2021)

+#Leary, Jan English, Town and Gown is a character-driven, propulsive novel that explores the importance of being true to self while also examining the dangers of keeping secrets. It tells of two unique young women growing up in a small college town. One marries young and becomes pregnant. The other leaves suddenly and doesn’t return until her mother is ill. Great characters and a hope-filled ending make this a winner. GPR, BC

Mansell, Jill, It Started with a Secret is a predictable, yet enjoyable romp of a rom-com set primarily by the sea in Cornwall. Two friends, Lainey, a straight woman, and Kit, a gay man, lose their jobs and pose as a married couple to get live-in work at a coastal mansion where one of the owners is an elderly, acerbic film star.  It’s entertaining, but Lainey is too Mary Poppins “perfect in every way,” and Kit is also one dimensional. The Cornish setting is lovely. CC/D/SBP (2020)

+Marra, Anthony, Mercury Pictures Presents, Maria escapes Mussolin’s Italy for California, but her father can't leave having been sentenced to “confino” for his anti-fascist activism. She begins as a typist at Mercury Pictures working with the studio head and soon begins producing. She falls in love with a Chinese-American actor who can't get work because of his ethnicity. The book offers a detailed view of wartime Hollywood and motion pictures. The final chapters brilliantly tie the characters’ lives together and are exceptional. Clever dialogue and humor make misogyny and prejudice come alive. GPR/PP/SN, BC (2022)

*McBride, James, The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store, traces white Moshe, the owner of a small Jewish theater, and his wife, Chona, the daughter of the town’s deceased rabbi, who runs the Heaven and Earth Grocery Store from the 1920s through 1972 in their mostly Black and Jewish neighborhood. When officials and Klansman Doc Roberts want to put Dodo, a Black orphan who became deaf in the explosion that killed his mother, in an institution for the feeble-minded, Chona hides and protects him. Connections to McBride’s own mother, a Polish, Jewish immigrant whose father was an itinerant rabbi turned store owner, are evident in the empathy, community, humor, and love McBride builds in his characters. It’s a joy-filled ride that explores the era well. GPR/PP, BC

+McDermott, Alice, Absolution begins in 1963 Saigon where 23-year-old Patricia, an American whose husband is a lawyer for the Navy, meets Charlene, the ringleader of the wives in Saigon. Charlene gets Patricia, who she calls Tricia, to help her “help” people including visiting lepers and offering to help Tricia adopt a Vietnamese baby after a miscarriage. Told by Patricia and Charlene’s daughter Rainey in a series of letters years later, the story benefits from the separation from the events. McDermott writes gorgeous sentences and illuminates the period. GPR/PP, BC

*Miller, Nathaniel Ian, The Memoirs of Stockholm Sven, When Sven leaves Stockholm in 1916 to work in the mines in Svalbard, an Arctic archipelago, he begins keeping notes about life. After losing an eye and becoming disfigured in an avalanche, he escapes 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 tale and my book club loved them too.  G/GPR/PP/SN, BC (2021) 

*Millet, Lydia, Dinosaurs, Gil has more money than he’ll ever need, so after his longtime girlfriend leaves him, he abandons New York for 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 abandoned bird corpses shot by an anonymous hunter. His continued friendship with his New York mates and his new friends offers a meditation on caring for ourselves, others, and our world. This kind, luminous novel celebrates connection and love. G/GPR, BC (2022)

*#Mozina, Andy, Tandem, In the opening pages of this satirical look at ethics and redemption, Mike Kovacs, a recently divorced professor, kills two bicyclists while driving drunk, removes pieces of his car near the bike, applies windshield wiper fluid to eliminate paint marks on the bike, and drives off into the night. You want to hate him, but Mozina presents Mike as a complicated human. “Nothing could be done. They were completely and irrevocably dead.” “He dimly grasped that his instinct for self-excuse was limitless.” Mike soon learns that the girl he killed is the daughter of neighbors and is drawn to the mother Claire. “If she were not married and if he had not killed her daughter, yes, he would be perfectly happy to ask her out. But she was married and he had killed her daughter. And yet. . .” Poe meets John Irving. A must for book clubs! S, BC

+#Myers, Linda Joy, The Forger of Marseille illustrates the complicity of France in betraying its countrymen and enabling the Nazis to consolidate power. Readers enter the compelling world of a young Jewish artist and her Spanish boyfriend who risk everything to help others escape and prove that each of us has something to offer to combat evil. It traces the arduous journeys many made through the Pyrenees to escape and makes the reader feel the gusting winds, the crevices, the rocky switchbacks, and the slippery stones of the steep trek toward the Spanish border. Myers doesn't simply report history, she brings it to life. GPR/PP/SN, BC

*#Napolitano, Ann, Hello, Beautiful is a remarkable ode to the power inherent in the belief that everyone deserves love. The novel cleverly references Little Women as four of the main characters are sisters similar to the March siblings. It's a big-hearted family saga that will envelop you completely as you enter Chicago’s Pilsen community and become a part of the Padavano family. Select this for your book club as these characters will remain with you and you’ll want to talk about them with friends. It was an Oprah selection. GPR, BC

*Novey, Idra, Take What You Need explores the power of art to make life whole and to capture the world collapsing around us. Jean was Leah’s stepmother, but they hadn’t seen each other in years. Jean still lives in their dying Allegheny hometown where she creates “manglements,” unique scrap metal sculptures. Leah moved to Peru and now lives in Queens with her Latino husband and son. When Jean dies, Leah inherits the manglements and reluctantly revisits her past and encounters a man she’s long feared. Novey expertly blends the rise of Trump with the dying town and our misguided attempts to help others. A brilliant examination of longing, grief, and art. G, BC

+Oakley, Colleen, The Mostly True Story of Tanner and Louise is a page-turner of a romp that will make you laugh and then pause as you consider the beauty of finding someone who sees you for who you truly are. After 84-year-old Louise broke her hip, her family hired 21-year-old Tanner to live with her and drive her to her appointments. Tanner is bereft after an injury resulted in the loss of her scholarship and her hopes for a pro soccer career. When these acerbic women run away together, Louise’s past presents problems. CC/D, BC

+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 and her climate fears feel related to those about her marriage. The taut sentences, wit, and piercing paragraphs create a powerful novel by one of our best authors. G/S 2020

*Patchett, Ann, Tom Lake, like the play Our Town that frames it, is a tale of people living ordinary lives. Lara, summoned to Michigan to play Emily in summer stock, falls for future movie star Peter Duke. The cast visits production member Joe’s family’s cherry orchard and years later Joe and Lara marry and settle on the farm. After Duke’s untimely death, Lara tells her grown daughters, home for the pandemic summer, the details of that long-ago summer. In the quiet manner only she manages, Patchett makes the quotidian sing. Reread Our Town to appreciate the intricately woven similarities. Try the audio as Meryl Streep reads it perfectly. GPR/R, BC

*Peters, Amanda, The Berry Pickers is a phenomenal, heartfelt debut that shares the consequences of the 1962 kidnapping of Ruthie, a four-year-old Mi’kmaq girl, from the Maine camp where her family worked as berry pickers. Told over fifty years in chapters narrated by Joe, Ruthie’s troubled older brother who saw her last, and by Norma, a conflicted only child with older white parents who has unexplained dreams, the novel shows the love of Ruthie’s bereft family and the trauma that burying the past and trying to annihilate a culture has on people. Simply outstanding! Even the “villains'' are great characters. Peters listened well to her father’s tales of the berry fields. GPR/PP, BC

+Picoult, Jodi and Jennifer Finney Boylan, Mad Honey is a novel featuring fast pacing and Picoult’s usual strong message about a hot issue. She and Boylan don’t disappoint as Picoult narrates in the voice of Olivia who escaped an abusive husband to establish a good life with her son in a small New Hampshire town. Boylan captures Lily, a high school senior, who’s recently moved to town with her mother to get a new start. Olivia’s son Asher falls in love with Lily and after her death, he’s accused of killing her. The trial is compelling and the reveal of the hot issue is clever. The lack of character development makes the conclusion less than satisfying and their introduction of beekeeping feels forced. Good for older teens. CC, BC (2022)

*Rash, Ron, The Caretaker sings with lush language, a plot that won’t let you go, and Rash’s incredible characters including evil ones that he’s phenomenal at illuminating. Despite his parents’ threat to disinherit him, Jacob marries Naomi, a  teen Jacob’s parents disdain. Naomi later becomes pregnant and Jacob gets his draft notice and is sent to Korea to serve in that long-ago war. He asks his best friend Blackburn, a polio survivor, to watch out for Naomi and the baby when it arrives. What happens next is something only Rash could write. It’s a page-turner, but the language and characters beg you to slow down. Phenomenal! G/GPR/GS/PP, BC

+Rooney, Kathleen, From Dust to Stardust is based on the life of silent movie star Colleen Moore who’s most famous for the magnificent fairy castle she created and donated to Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry. Fourteen-year-old Eileen and her grandmother head to Hollywood where in 1916 Eileen becomes Doreen O’Dare and stars in several movies. She tells her life story in 1968 at the museum as they record her relating how she collected the items and  built the castle while remembering her life. This tale of resilience, misogyny, and hard work will appeal to movie aficionados and all Chicagoans. GPR/PP/SN

*#Schine, Cathleen, Künstlers in Paradise is a spectacular novel that combines historical fiction, a modern family saga, and the witty repartee between a 93-year-old grandmother and her 20-something grandson. Beginning in 1939 Vienna, when Mamie is 11 and her family escapes the Nazis to live in California, the book shows the importance of sharing stories. In 2020, when Mamie and her grandson Julian quarantine due to Covid, the book explores the similarities of exile in a new country with exile from normal life. Great language, wisdom, characters, and joy make this a winner. D/GPR/PP/SN, BC

*Shapiro, Dani, Signal Fires, It’s 1985 and 15-year-old Theo Wilf is driving because his older sister Sarah has been drinking. They crash in front of their home and Misty, their passenger, dies. Sarah claims that she was the driver and no one checks her for alcohol. Their father, a doctor, runs out and tries to save Misty. An omniscient narrator takes the reader ahead in time as the secrets of that day affect the family. Later, on New Year’s Eve before 2000, Dr. Wilf again leaves his house to deliver and save the life of the premature baby being born to new neighbors across the street. He later forms a relationship with the child, named Waldo, who shows the doctor an app that charts constellations and forms a significant part of Waldo’s life. The app shows the interconnectedness of the sky as it details “stars, signal fires in the dark.” Outstanding character development, the interconnectedness theme, and Shapiro’s incredible word pictures lead to a beautiful climax. G, BC (2022)

+Shipman, Viola, Famous in a Small Town is a frothy summer romantic comedy of a novel set in a fictional town based on Good Hart, Michigan where I live in summer and fall. There are enough similarities for it to charm locals and visitors. None of the characters are based on real people, and many places have been moved or invented to fit the storyline. I enjoyed it for the setting despite the numerous typos and the absence of copy editing. If you’re looking for a feel-good summer novel with a predictable ending, this is it. CC

+Stradel, J. Ryan, Saturday Night at the Lakeside Supper Club captures the north woods of Minnesota and the omnipresent food, cocktails, and relish trays found in old-time supper clubs. The novel mimics those supper clubs with familiar characters, caring families, and concerns over young adults leaving for the big cities. Mariel loves the restaurant that her mother disdained. Her grandmother leaves it to her which causes stress with her mother. This book is pure Midwestern comfort food. GPR 

+Stringfellow, Tara, Memphis follows three generations of Memphis women over seventy years. Beginning in 1995 when Miriam leaves her abusive husband to take her daughters to stay with her Aunt August and her worrisome son Derek in their family home where the Black community offers support. This debut makes you question why Miriam would take her girls near Derek after what he’d done, but the focus on resilience and forgiveness makes it plausible. I loved thinking about the family having prints by contemporary Black artists Romare Bearden and Allen Stringfellow that showed ordinary Blacks in everyday life so exuberantly. They mirrored the plot well. It was a Read with Jenna pick. GPR/SN, BC (2023)

*Thai, Thao, Banyan Moon follows three generations of women beginning with Minh who left Vietnam with her children in 1973. She’s lived in a deteriorating Gothic house in the Florida swamps for decades. When her granddaughter Ann, newly pregnant and living with her professor boyfriend in Michigan, learns of Minh’s death, she heads south to her estranged mother Hu’o’ng. Told in three viewpoints 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,” sing with authenticity. Thai cleverly reveals secrets at just the right time. It was a Read with Jenna pick.  GPR, BC

*#Urrea, Luis Alberto, Good Night, Irene introduces the little-known World War II Red Cross Clubmobile corps and the volunteer “Donut Dollies,” women who made and served coffee and donuts to GIs in England and Europe. While working to bolster morale among the troops, these women served alongside the soldiers under the most difficult and harrowing circumstances. Focusing primarily on two volunteers: Irene, a privileged but unhappy New Yorker, and Dorothy, an Indiana farm girl who's lost both the farm and her family, the novel reveals the truth about World War II in Europe and depicts it more vividly than nonfiction ever could. GPR/PP/SN, BC

+Verghese, Abraham, Covenant of Water, the acclaimed author of Cutting for Stone has given the world a new epic, this one set in the Kerala region of India in an area filled with devout St. Thomas Christians. In 773 pages, from 1900 to 1977, it traces one family living with an unexplained “Condition” in which a child drowns in every generation. Verghese’s medical knowledge makes the chapters set in a home for people with leprosy and in medical schools both realistic and compelling. In essence, though, this is a novel about love, forgiveness, and sacrifice. The last chapters are particularly strong and beautiful. Verghese builds great multi-faceted characters, especially matriarch Big Ammachi. This fine fable was an Oprah pick. G/PP/SN, BC

*Ward, Jesmyn, Let Us Descend is a searing rendering of the horrors of slavery, an image of the inferno Dante envisioned. In Ward’s singular lyrical, poetic words, she relentlessly submits the reader to the monstrosity of slavery as seen through Annis, who was sold south by the white “owner” who “sired” her. As she walks, she enters an imaginary world of spirits who haunt, taunt, and sometimes comfort her. Reading this is bearing witness to the trauma of slavery. It’s unrelenting just as enslavement was which makes it difficult to read emotionally. The ending is magnificent. G/SN, BC

+Warrell, Laura, Sweet, Soft, Plenty Rhythm embeds the reader in jazz trumpeter Circus Palmer’s life and that of the complex women surrounding him who tell his story. Circus leaves a woman he loves upon learning that she’s pregnant and thus continues his longtime habit of emotional avoidance. Evading his teenage daughter Koko after her mother abandons her is different, or is it? Koko is a great character who stuck with me long after the book ended. Two sentences show how love can grow. 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 and the way love changes us. GPR, BC (2022) 

+Zigman, Laura, 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 recent divorce. Hoping to forge a new relationship, and re-examine their childhood that dealt with the care of then grief over 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. Just right for book clubs. GPR, BC

Mysteries, Suspense, and Thrillers

+Abbott, Megan, Beware the Woman, Jacy and Jed, newlywed and three months pregnant, visit Jed’s retired physician father at his rustic, wooded estate in a remote area of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula where Mrs. Brandt, the enigmatic housekeeper, lives in a nearby cabin. When Jacy begins bleeding, no one wants her to leave. Shades of Rebecca color this gothic noir with additional touches of horror from a prowling mountain lion. Is anyone telling the truth? The writing is captivating, but the big twist and some characters’ actions felt slightly forced. The introduction of the issue of a woman’s control over her body was well done. CC

+#Allen, Samantha Jayne, Hard Rain is a stand-alone mystery, the second in the Annie McIntyre series focusing on Annie’s new career as a private investigator. A horrific flood destroyed several homes where low-income families lived. Annie’s high school classmate Bethany survived the flood after a man in a nearby tree pulled her to safety. She fears he may have died and wants to find him so she hires Annie. Annie’s search leads her to discover a body in a car in the river which leads to a connection to Bethany’s church. Allen captures rural Texas and is a master of propulsive action. Reading Pay Dirt, shortlisted for the Hammett Prize, offers insight into Annie, but this sharp, twisty, suspense thriller stands on its own. CC

+Barton, Fiona, Local Gone Missing is a character-driven mystery set in a seaside English town. Detective Inspector Elise King is on medical leave after breast cancer surgery so she begins looking for clues to the disappearance of a local man everyone seems to love. The entire town seems to have secrets and Dee, the house cleaner, who cleans for Elise and the man who disappeared along with other not-so-stellar residents; knows what many are hiding. While filled with clever twists, it isn't quite as good as her Widow series. CC (2022)

+Box, C.J., Shadows Reel: A Joe Pickett Novel #22, Joe finds a local fishing guide brutally burned and murdered while Joe’s wife Marybeth opens a package hand-delivered to the library that contains a photo album connected to a notorious Nazi. Marybeth’s research shows that Wyoming soldiers served in the area in the photos. Was the guide killed to retrieve the album? It’s a clever mystery with great twists, but the secondary story of Joe’s friend hunting for the man who stole his falcons and attacked his wife seems superfluous. CC (2022)

+Coban, Harlan, Boy from the Woods is a propulsive thriller that won't let you put it down. Thirty years ago, Wilde was a young child found living alone in the woods. When a teenage girl goes missing and Wilde’s godson asks him to help find her, he uses his unique skills which leads to an unexpected connection to the wealthy and the powerful. The twists and characters pull you in. CC (2020)

*Cosby, S.A., All the Sinners Bleed, Titus Crown, former FBI Agent, is the first Black Sheriff in his small Virginia town when a former student walks into the local high school and shoots a beloved white teacher whose phone later shows horrific photos and videos leading to a field filled with bodies of murdered Black children with religious messages carved into their bodies. The victim, his murderer, and a third masked man are shown in the images and Titus must fight a church and racial animosity to determine whodunnit. This Southern Gothic thriller illuminates Virginia’s racial history and the epilogue is incredible. GPR/GS, BC

+Cosby, S.A., My Darkest Prayer, Nate works at his cousin’s funeral home having quit his job in the Sheriff’s office after they didn't arrest anyone in the drunk driving accident that killed Nate’s parents. When a local pastor dies and the authorities deem it suicide, parishioners ask Nate to investigate. Being the son of a white, non-violent father he respected and a Black mother who saw things realistically, Nate emerges as a conflicted hero in Cosby’s debut offering a preview of the fine author to come. GPR/CC/GS (2019, reissue 2022)

*#Cranor, Eli, Don’t Know Tough is Friday Night Lights meets Ron Rash in a rural Arkansas suspense thriller portraying high school football star Billy Lowe, an angry kid who’s constantly terrorized by his Mom’s boyfriend. When he snaps on the field, his new, born-again Christian, fresh from California, coach thinks he can save Billy. When the abuser/boyfriend is found murdered in the Lowe’s trailer, Billy is the prime suspect and the town’s playoff hopes may end. This stellar Edgar Award debut is tough and tender. G/GPR/GS, BC (2022)

*Cranor, Eli, Ozark Dogs is a great Southern noir page-turner. Bronze Star recipient Jeremiah raised his granddaughter Joanna in his Arkansas junkyard after his son went to prison for life. The Ledford family, white supremacist meth dealers, could be after Joanna so when she disappears, Jeremiah plans to use his Viet Nam-learned sniper skills. His vivid memories make this a terrifying yet gripping tale. “The girl with the broken-heart birthmark lay curled on her side under the open-air window where she'd looked through the scope at Jeremiah and smiled. His training told him he had to check her pulse and confirm his kill–there was a Bronze Star waiting for him.” G/GPR/GS, BC

+Harper, Jordan, Everybody Knows is as noir as it gets. Following a series of bombings in homeless encampments around LA, Mae watches as her boss is killed outside the Beverly Hills Hotel. She’s good at her job covering up the misdeeds of the wealthy and famous, but she’s scared she could be a target. Her ex-boyfriend Chris, a former cop working private security, investigates and things get sticky. Mae and Chris uncover Hollywood sex crimes involving children and untouchable perpetrators. When they find a pregnant teen who could blow the cover off, the depravity increases. The beginning wanders, but the last half is brilliant and ties everything together. I adored his She Rides Shotgun and this is as well-written, but the graphic details are tough to read. G

+Hawkins, Rachel, The Heiress is a Southern Gothic noir tale that begins with Ruby, North Carolina’s wealthiest woman, who was kidnapped as a child and suspiciously widowed four times all while living in a massive family estate in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Her son Cam and his wife Jules live a normal life in Colorado where he rejects his inheritance after his mother’s death, but when his uncle dies, he and Jules return to Ashley House. Why did Ruby adopt Cam? Filled with unreliable narrators, this is a clever mystery with several twists. It comes out on January 9, 2024. CC/GS (2024)

+#Jackson, Joshlyn, With My Little Eye is the suspense-filled tale of Meribel Mills, a former sitcom celebrity being stalked by “Marker Man” who sends her threatening notes using scented markers. She and Honor, her 12-year-old neurodivergent daughter, escape LA for Atlanta. Could the stalker be her ex-husband, her new boyfriend, or their helpful neighbor? Jackson’s first thriller produces exciting, anxiety-inducing moments and sweet characters. CC/GS

*Jónasson, Ragnar and Jakobsdóttir, Katrin, Reykjavík: A Crime Story, Acclaimed mystery writer and Agatha Christie translator Jónasson joins with debut author and Iceland’s Prime Minister Jakobsdóttir, who wrote her master's thesis on Icelandic author Arnaldur Indradason, in this homage to Agatha Christie that begins in 1956 when 14-year-old Lara works for a couple on an island off Reykjavik’s coast and soon disappears leaving no trace. Thirty years later, Valur, a journalist, investigates the disappearance and finds out too late that Iceland’s most powerful people don’t want him to succeed. Jakobsdóttir’s insider political knowledge makes the powerful characters feel real. CC/SN

+Johnston, Tim, Distant Sons begins when Sean’s truck breaks down in a small Wisconsin town and he ends up in a bar fight defending a waitress’s honor. Dan drifts into town and works with Sean on a project at an elderly hermit’s home and they realize that the town is still trying to figure out the disappearance of three young boys forty years previously. Great characters make this more about friendship and life than figuring out whodunnit. GPR, BC

Krueger, William Kent, The River We Remember is set in a small Minnesota town in 1958 where the wealthiest man in the county has been found dead in a river bend. Almost all who knew him had reason to dislike him. Focusing on several characters, all of whom have traumatic life experiences, makes the actual mystery of who might have murdered the man take a backseat. Some characters, like the endearing teen Scott who was born with heart issues, don't serve the narrative focus and force a predictable ending. When Noah Bluestone, a Dakota Sioux, is arrested for the crime, the prejudices of many residents reveal themselves. Unlike Krueger’s previous stand-alone books, this one feels forced in pushing issues over plot. The novel’s heavy-handed treatment of several topics including PTSD, alcoholism, misogyny, and sexual assault makes the story feel almost incidental. PP 

*Kukafka, Danya, Notes on an Execution, the 2023 Edgar Award winner for best mystery, is a psychological suspense novel about Ansel Packer, a serial killer, and his victims and others impacted by his actions. As Ansel sits on death row counting down the twelve hours until his execution, he tells his story in the second person, beginning with “You are a fingerprint.” This works to hold us at a distance from Ansel and allows us to concentrate on the third-person stories of a detective who'd been in foster care with Ansel, of Ansel’s mother, of Ansel’s wife’s twin sister, and of his other victims. The novel is a brilliant, sad, chilling portrait showing how damaged people damage themselves and others. In it, we see our own voyeurism in the way we look at victims and killers. G, BC (2022)

Landay, William, All That Is Mine, I Carry with Me, Landay’s Defending Jacob is one of the best courtroom dramas I've read so I had high hopes. In 1975, young Miranda came home from school to an empty house. Her mother was still missing when her older brothers got home. Time passed and everyone including the detective assigned to the case thought their father, an egotistical defense attorney, had killed her. Their mother’s body was found in 1993. Alex, the older brother thought their father innocent and the younger siblings and their aunt were certain their father had killed their mother. Different characters, including their mother, narrate the book in sections set at separate times. The concept is intriguing, but I didn't find the book cohesive or compelling. CC

+Lapena, Shari, Everyone Here Is Lying, Dr. Wooler was having an affair and lying to hide it. His 9-year-old daughter Avery, who frequently misbehaved, came home alone after being kicked out of choir practice. The doctor lost his temper when he found Avery at home then she disappeared.. Witnesses offered conflicting evidence. Unreliable narrators abound in this tight thriller you’ll want to devour in one sitting. Evil and self-preservation take center stage. CC

*#Makkai, Rebecca, I Have Some Questions for You takes Podcaster Bodie Kane back to the 1990s murder of Thalia, her boarding school roommate. Bodie returns to campus to teach students how to create a podcast and one pupil finds information that could free the man convicted of the crime. Makkai’s brilliant use of lists to highlight the seemingly endless sexual assaults of young girls is reminiscent of Julie Otsuka’s writing. I couldn't stop thinking about Brett Kavanaugh and others as I read. Perfect for book clubs. GPR/CC/SN, BC

+May, Peter, A Winter Grave is a stand-alone mystery from the award-winning author of my beloved Lewis trilogy. It’s 2051 and much of the earth is too hot to inhabit while the melting Gulf Stream has hit Scotland with rare snow and ice storms. In the northern Highlands, Addie, a meteorologist, discovers the body of a missing investigative reporter encased in ice at a weather station Addie’s monitoring. Cameron Brodie, a Glasgow detective just diagnosed with a terminal disease, volunteers to investigate hoping to reunite with his estranged daughter who lives in the village. He and a pathologist encounter evidence of murder as a storm cuts them off and they can’t trust anyone. CC/GPR/SBP/SN, BC

+#Miranda, Megan, The Only Survivors, The nine survivors of a deadly crash ten years ago that killed several of their high school classmates and two teachers gather every year on the anniversary in a cottage on the Outer Banks. One of them died by suicide on an anniversary and Cassidy has cut herself off from them until she receives a text with the obituary of another survivor so she joins the rest. They’re down to seven when another disappears. With flashbacks to the aftermath of the wreck and multiple twists and turns, this builds to a strong climax. Miranda never disappoints. CC/G

+Mizushima, Margaret, Standing Dead: A Timber Creek Canine Mystery, #8, K-9 officer Mattie Cobb and her German Shepherd partner Robo find the body of her mother’s husband near a campground where a stock tank’s poisoned water has caused illness. A note appears on Mattie’s door that the criminals have Mattie’s mother and are coming for her and her family. The books in this series offer insight into search and rescue dogs. CC/SN

+Osman, Richard, The Last Devil to Die: A Thursday Murder Club Mystery #4, begins with the murder of Stephen’s old friend Kuldesh, an antique dealer, whose death seems connected to a missing heroin delivery. The Coopers Chase crew and their police friends identify several suspects who soon get murdered. Who will be the last to die? The best and most endearing part of this novel is the sensitive treatment of Stephen’s increasing dementia and his wife Elizabeth’s role as his caretaker plus their friends’ support. GPR/CC, BC

+Parks, Alan, To Die in June: Harry McCoy Thrillers #6 was a bit of a disappointment. I still recommend it for those who love this series and want to know how Harry McCoy is faring, but it isn’t as sharp or insightful as his earlier work. It’s 1975 and Harry and Wattie get transferred to Possill Station where Harry is to secretly determine if the detectives are on the take. A church may be involved with a missing child and someone seems to be poisoning older homeless alcoholics which could include Harry’s dad. The bad guys are everywhere and Harry could get caught up in it. CC/PP/SBP

+#Royce, Deborah Goodrich, Reef Road showcases Royce’s ability to infuse twists that grab the reader. The plot hinges on the unsolved murder of a 12-year-old girl in 1948, but the action takes place at the beginning of the pandemic in 2020 with two unreliable narrators: a wife whose family has disappeared and a writer. The writer befriends the wife and then stalks and spies on her. This tight, haunting thriller is both elegant and creepy. CC

+#Slocumb, Brendan, Symphony of Secrets, Slocumb follows his blockbuster The Violin Conspiracy with a tale weaving classical music, jazz, and prejudice against Black scholars. Frederic Delaney is Bern Hendrick’s favorite composer. Bern has devoted most of his academic career 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 Bern’s schooling, offers him 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, neurodivergent Black woman who lived with Delaney who probably wrote his best work. A clever mystery that makes you question assumptions. The audio is brilliantly read. CC/GS/R/SN, BC

+Sutano, Jesse Q., Vera Wong’s Unsolicited Advice for Murderers is a light, cozy mystery featuring Vera, a lonely widow, who finds a dead body in her tea house. Meeting the victim’s family and a few possible suspects enlivens Vera’s existence and her cooking and care connects them all. When Vera tries to solve the mystery, she causes unforeseen difficulties. CC

+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. CC


*Bass, Diana Butler, Grateful: the Subversive Practice of Giving Thanks, originally published with the subtitle: The Transformative Power of Giving Thanks, is a book that changed me and made several tough months in my life better. Learning to be grateful in all things instead of for all things has made me more attentive and in the present while feeling grateful for where I am. The book taught me that gratitude isn’t just saying thank you, it’s being in community with others and being both beneficiary and benefactor. It’s based in Christianity yet welcoming to nonbelievers and those of other faiths. I led a 9-week study of it at my church and highly recommend it to all groups. The book’s cover is purposefully not “Hallmarkish” to reflect the realism inside. SF/SN, BC (2018)

*Bhatt, Vishwesh, I Am from Here: Stories and Recipes from a Southern Chef wowed me with Bhatt’s tales of food from his childhood in Gujarat, India, and his lush reminiscences with each recipe. The variety of recipes like Chicken Salad with Mango Chutney and Pistachios, All-Weather-Tomato Tart, Sweet Potato and Peanut Salad, Peanut Crusted Fish, Rice Pilaf with Chicken, Raisins, and Cashews, and Vish’s Garam Masala blended India and Oxford, Mississippi where he’s been a restaurateur for many years. SN, 2022

*Chung, Nicole, A Living Remedy, Chung’s parents were out of work with no health insurance when her father became ill and couldn’t get treatment. His death felt like murder, but Chung, the author of the brilliant All You Can Ever Know, and her mother coped. Then her mother was diagnosed with cancer and Covid arrived leaving Chung unable to visit her mother while she was dying. This book is a gift to all who grieve. When Chung and her family got a dog: “She has given our weary, grieving family another place to put our love, a shared focus that isn’t all about what we’ve lost, and I am often reminded that this, too, is part of mourning: trying to find new joy where we can.” Read and discuss this miracle of a book. GPR/SF/SN, BC

+Emmons, Robert, The Little Book of Gratitude offers the ARC model of gratitude: Gratitude amplifies goodness, rescues us from negative emotions, and connects us to others in meaningful ways. This small book offers quick suggestions to keep you on the path of gratitude. It’s a fine companion after you’ve read Diana Butler Bass’s Grateful. SF/SN

*Finkel, Michael, The Art Thief: A True Story of Love, Crime and a Dangerous Obsession tells the surprising tale of Stépane Breitwieser who began stealing art from small European museums at age 25. By the time he was caught, he'd stolen more than 209 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 planned to sell his treasures; he simply enjoyed looking at them with his girlfriend beside him. Finkel’s research makes the bizarre story compelling. SN

+Jackson, Regina and Rao, Saira, White Women: Everything You Already Know About Your Own Racism and How to Do Better, The authors, one Black and one Asian, founded Race2Dinner to facilitate conversations among white women about racism. They saw that many white women in their sessions used niceness and tears to avoid tough questions. This is their “gift” to white women to help them work toward dismantling white supremacy. The book forces the reader to be vulnerable enough to overcome white silence, color blindness, entitlement, microaggressions, and the myth of white saviors. It isn’t an easy book to read if you pay attention and look inward, and you must. SN (2022)

+Kimball, Christopher, Milk Street Cook What You Have: Make a Meal Out of Almost Anything is well organized with sections including Not So Basic Beans, Can-Do Tomatoes, Go-To Grains. Good Eggs, Chicken Winners, Sausage Solutions, and Tortilla Twists. Each recipe offers numerous substitution options making them accessible. I loved Chickpea and Garlic Soup with Cumin-Spiced Butter and Egg Salad with Harissa, Olives, and Almonds. Garlicky Peanut Noodles offers a new take on an old favorite. SN (2022)

*Land, Stephanie, Class: A Memoir of Motherhood, Hunger, and Higher Education, The author of the best-selling Maid and the subsequent Netflix series based on that book, describes the endless sacrifices and fears involved in cleaning houses, caring for her young daughter, and going to college to fulfill her dream of becoming a writer. Her fights for child support, food stamps, and subsidized childcare with a system that doesn't believe she deserves to go to school make the reader feel her hunger for food and learning and her wishes for her daughter to have moments of joy. The prejudice shown toward her as not deserving of being in college rings true. Her stories should awaken readers to the realities of poverty. Land is a talented chronicler of hardship and determination. It's magnificent and impossible to put down. GPR/SN, BC

+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 takes 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. GPR/SN

+Perelman, Deb, Smitten Kitchen Every Day: Triumphant & Unfussy New Favorites, While I don’t adore this as much as I did the original 2112 Smitten Kitchen Cookbook, I found several tasty new recipes including Herb & Garlic Baked Camembert, Pork Tenderloin Agrodolce with Squash Rings, and the gorgeous Leek, Feta, and Greens Spiral Pie using phyllo dough sheets. I’m not baking or making desserts right now, but the sweets looked yummy. SN (2017)

*Perelman, Deb, Smitten Kitchen Keepers: New Classics for Your Forever Files, a Bon Appétit and Epicurius best cookbook of 2022, offers fresh ideas. My Bodega-Style Egg-and-Cheese makes mornings a snap. Broccoli Rabe with Broken Burrata is pure heaven and Green Angel Hair with Garlic Butter makes an easy yet luscious dinner. Never did I expect to make pickled iceberg lettuce, but it’s yummy in her “Russian” BLT. The Chocolate Olive Oil Spread can easily replace Nutella. I agree with Publishers Weekly’s starred review: “Practical and versatile, this is a boon to home cooks.” SN (2022)

+Prince Harry, Spare captures Prince Harry’s still simmering anger over his mother’s death and his admissions of how he coped with PTSD and his grief in early adulthood. It also clearly explains his father’s neglect and the toll it took on their relationship. Using J.R.Moehringer, the author of the phenomenal The Tender Bar, as his ghostwriter was brilliant as he honestly shows Harry’s anger alongside his love for his wife and family in a book that feels authentic while showing the need for Harry to tell his story his way. The prejudice shown toward the young family was perfectly explored. GPR/SN

+Ruhl, Sarah, Smile 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. GPR/SF/SN (2021)

Tandoh, Ruby, Cook As You Are: Recipes for Real Life, Hungry Cooks, and Messy Kitchens, A cookbook with a recipe beginning on the same page as another one ends is distracting. Stuffed Flatbreads, Three Ways intrigued me, but seeing it on the same page as the variations for Lemony Green Lentil Soup didn’t. Neither did the recipe groupings. The illustrations offered little. Whatever-You’ve-Got-Fried-Rice might make a good meal with ingredients you have on hand but use Christopher Kimball’s Milk Street Cook What You Have instead. SN (2022)

Peanut Butter and Jelly, books for children

*Blackall, Sophie, If I Was a Horse, by the two-time Caldecott Medal winner, is a slice of perfection that rambunctious two-year-olds like my granddaughter will actually sit to explore and hear read to them. Blackall’s illustrations are spectacularly engaging and her brief, humorous text captures even reluctant listeners. “If it was raining, I wouldn’t care. I would roll in the mud and laugh and laugh.” The glittery cover adds to the attraction. PBJ (Ages 2-7)

Diet Coke and Gummie Bears, books for teens, and young adults

+Craig, Erin, House of Roots and Ruin: Sisters of the Salt #2 is a stand-alone sequel to the 2019 hit House of Salt and Sorrows. This gothic thriller fantasy is just what teens want in a big book filled with ghosts, demons, and an imagined world that never interferes with the well-told story. Readers will beg for a third installment. DC (Ages 14-18)

*Kimmerer, Robin Wall, adapted by Monique Gray Smith and illustrated by Nicole Neidhardt, Braiding Sweetgrass for Young Adults: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teaching of Plants, The adult book club at my church read this, loved it,  and agreed that it’s a fine introduction to the classic Braiding Sweetgrass. The illustrations, ideas, and exploration of ecology offer stories and examples that show us how to listen to the wisdom of the earth and work to preserve it. DC/SF/SN, BC (Ages 10 and up) (2022)

*Monsef, Kiyash, Once There Was, 15-year-old Marjan’s veterinarian father was murdered and she was alone and adrift when she was called to heal a mythological creature and learned that she was part of an ancient line able 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. A magic carpet ride for animal lovers. DC (Ages 10 and  up.)

+Picoult, Jodi and Jennifer Finney Boylan, Mad Honey, see General Fiction for a novel addressing a hot issue that older teens should find compelling. 

+Stork, Francisco X., I Am Not Alone features 17-year-old Albert, an undocumented house painter from Mexico living with his sister and her baby. Alberto hears voices that scare 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 then 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. DC/SN (Ages 13 and up)

*Tahir, Sabaa, All My Rage, winner of the 2022 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature and the 2023 ALA Printz Award for Young Adult Literature, is a beautiful tale of outcasts. Noor’s uncle wants her to work in his liquor store instead of going to college. Sal is trying to keep his family’s motel afloat while his mother Misbah’s health fails and his alcoholic father doesn’t help. Alternating between their viewpoints and Misbah’s recollections of her arranged early marriage and life in Pakistan, Misbah’s illness brings Sal and Noor together in a poignant look at longing and connection. DC (Ages 14 and up) (2022)