Monday, June 24, 2024

Old King by Maxim Loskutoff

Old King by Maxim Loskutoff is a wonder of a Western wilderness narrative. Imagine the summer of 1976 and the years following when Duane, a man in his early thirties, flees his Utah home after his former wife’s new life with his son and the man she left Duane for becomes too much to bear. Duane lands in a remote Montana town where he scrapes by as a logger and finds a measure of contentment in building a cabin on an even more remote trail. He meets his neighbors including Jackie, a kind, grounded waitress, and his son joins him every summer. 

Duane’s hermit neighbor is extraordinarily strange, but so are others in the area including a neighbor who harbors a grizzly bear in a homemade cage behind his cabin. When the hermit, a man named Ted Kaczynski, yes, that Ted Kaczynski, acts violently and destructively and threatens the livelihood and existence of the neighborhood as well as the nation, Duane and his neighbors don’t realize the danger around them. 

This could have been a gratuitous riff on Kaczynski and a caricature of the people drawn to living isolated lives, but instead, it’s a grace-filled ode to belonging in an era when technology and big corporations began to threaten the existence of small towns and the people who lived in them. Kaczynski’s part in the narrative feels natural because Loskutoff envisions him as the person he was.

Loskutoff’s powerful descriptions make the land feel like a living character. As Duane drove down an empty trail, “The trees leaned over the road, examining Duane as he passed. Taken objectively, these trees were no different from the ones he wandered through in the woods behind Jackie’s house—ponderosa and lodgepole pines and the occasional Doug fir, forty to seventy feet tall, reddish trunks, clusters of green needles—but here he felt a communion, a collective history, as if this forest predated all the other inhabitants of the valley, and contained a deep, watchful intelligence.” 

Later, he spied a solitary Doug fir, “a massive tree, its gnarled crown was flung across the sky. It was the biggest he’d ever seen, easily a hundred feet tall and five feet wide at the base. The thick, regal trunk was rod-straight and the upper branches looked like the roots at Duane’s feet, reaching for purchase in the heavens. He set down his sandwich and approached the tree. The needles were a deep, shimmering blue and he felt humbled in the cool of its shade—a small furless animal at the foot of an old king.” Duane finds a crooked altar made of deer and rabbit bones tied with twine arranged around the base of the tree and he is seized with fear.  What could this old king of a tree be saying and could it be Kaczynski who’d built this menacing altar? 

Summing it Up: Read Old King, a novel spanning two decades, to experience a seemingly improbable, yet completely believable story that could have happened when one man’s quest to stop technology’s acceleration and slow the destruction of our natural world invaded a quiet place where time may have slowed but hadn’t stopped. This is a bold, caring novel that I could barely put down for a second as it completely captivated me. Loskutoff may be our new Cormac McCarthy. One of my favorite authors, Nickolas Butler, said it best in calling Loskutoff a writer “endowed with fearless audacity, stunning grace, and gutsy heart.” 

Footnote: Maxim Loskutoff will be one of the featured authors at the Harbor Springs Festival of the Book, September 27, 28, and 29, 2024 in Harbor Springs, Michigan. Presenters and registration information here:

Rating:  5 Stars 

Publication Date: June 4, 2024

Category: Fiction, Five Stars, Gourmet, Pigeon Pie (Historical Fiction), Super Nutrition, Book Club

Author Website: 

Reading Group Guide: 

What Others Are Saying: 

New York Times:

Publishers Weekly:

San Francisco Chronicle:

Monday, April 29, 2024

Mother’s Day and Spring Reading Ideas

It's almost May and many of you are yearning for books suitable for reading outdoors as daylight lingers and warm breezes make sitting under a tree irresistible. Others are searching for gifts for those who’ve guided your path. May these satisfy your hunger for good books that will keep you reading until dusk forces you inside.

My husband died in early February. I share that because I was unable to concentrate on reading in his last weeks and in the first month or so after his death. He had a wonderful life and was ready to go when his body could no longer tolerate the cancer treatments that had kept him pain-free and able to enjoy family and friends for more than three years, and for that I am grateful. I'm also grateful that I was gradually able to regain my focus and soon found comfort, escape, and stimulation as I returned to reading. The book that thawed my reading drought was appropriately titled The Frozen River by Ariel Lawhon. It's the first of several titles I recommend for Mother’s Day gifts or for your own reading pleasure. The other titles listed are some of those I've read since The Frozen River. Note: I also recommend I Cheerfully Refuse, a novel I read and reviewed here earlier this month.

*The Frozen River by Ariel Lawhon

It’s November 1789 and Maine’s Kennebec River has just frozen. Martha Ballard is a respected midwife in her fifties who keeps a journal recording everything from the daily weather to births and local incidents. When called to examine the body of a man entombed in the river’s ice, she sees that he's been murdered, but a new, young physician declares the death accidental. Martha wants to get home to talk with her husband. “Some men think in a straight line, like an arrow off the string. They go to logic, to the easy conclusion, and avoid the waterways of the mind. But not Ephraim. His head is all rivers and streams, and with a mind like that a thought could run anywhere. He will have an answer. He always does.” The respect Martha and Ephraim show each other is exceptional and is rarely seen in novels and even less often in historical fiction. Based on a real midwife’s life, this novel expertly explores misogyny and courage and is an engrossing read with compelling characters. GPR/PP/SN, BC (2023)

*James: a Novel by Percival Everett

James should win the Pulitzer Prize; it's that good. This reimagining of Adventures of Huck Finn told from Jim’s point of view is like a firecracker exploding with humor, tragedy, love, and insight. Huck and Jim escape on a raft down the Mississippi River in an engrossing adventure. It's a masterpiece and a classic tale that's both fast-paced and packed with nuance and riveting dialogue. The conversation about “proleptic irony or dramatic irony” plays with the reader so beautifully; it makes me want to embroider it on a pillow. Everett has created a novel that’s completely accessible and at the same time ready to take its place in the canon of American literature. You’ll want to reread Huck Finn after reading James. GPR/G/PP, BC

*Float Up, Sing Down: Stories by Laird Hunt

Hunt returns to the area celebrated in his magnificent National Book Award finalist Zorrie with fourteen stories set in a single day in 1982 in the fictional town of Bright Creek, Indiana. Having grown up just down the road, reading these stories is a return to my childhood especially with the mention of “catfish over at Miller’s in Colfax,” a place everyone within fifty miles visited often. Hunt makes you see the people and their lives while showing “God’s country. Or God’s cousin’s country anyway. Maybe God’s nephew. No need to be grandiose. On a clear day and with sharp eyes you could see better than five miles in every direction,” Hunt makes you feel a part of the long-ago Indiana of my grandparents. He explores life, death, and community with razor-sharp dialogue that captures the region, and Zorrie herself returns. If you love the quiet beauty of Our Town and Willa Cather, you'll appreciate this treasure. G/PP, BC

*Go as a River by Shelley Read

In the 1960s, the town of Iola, Colorado was destroyed to create a reservoir. In 1948, Victoria, a 17-year-old Iola resident, meets and falls in love with a Native man who’s running away from a job contract in a coal mine. His death and her subsequent pregnancy force her to leave her family’s peach orchard to shelter in a hut in the nearby mountains. Her resilience in living her life as if it were a river always moving forward makes for a strong story with excellent depictions of the natural world. An unusual decision I won't divulge combined with superb language form a compelling debut, coming-of-age novel that traces Victoria’s life along with that of the river. GPR/PP, BC (2023)

*Wandering Stars by Tommy Orange

Wandering Stars resounds with yearning. This stand-alone sequel to the masterpiece There, There lyrically illustrates the powerful yearning of one family, via descendant Orvil Red Feather, to be themselves after their historical removal from tribal lands and the forced abandonment of their native language and culture. It shows the generational trauma of collective loss coupled with the will to survive. Beginning with the Sand Creek Massacre in 1864 and the subsequent Carlisle Indian Industrial School fiasco, Wandering Stars visits the descendants of one Native family seen at the powwow in There, There as they struggle with substance abuse and erasure while trying to preserve family ties and their culture. “Everyone only thinks we're from the past, but then we're here, but they don't know we’re still here.” While this is an emotionally difficult read, it’s an essential one. G/PP/SN, BC

+After Annie by Anna Quindlen

“Bill, get me some Advil, my head is killing me,” were the last words Annie said before falling on the kitchen floor and dying of an aneurysm in this cozy, quiet portrait of a mother and those she left behind. Annie was in her early thirties. She had four children ages six to thirteen. She and her plumber husband Bill lived a packed life that allowed for little reflection which was a good fit for Bill. Annie also left her best friend Annemarie, a woman who'd had substance abuse problems and relied on Annie for more than just their deep friendship. Bill is both bereft and clueless so when thirteen-year-old Ali makes sandwiches, wakes up her younger brothers before school, and keeps the household afloat, Bill barely notices. He adored Annie and without her as his rudder, he doesn't seem capable of seeing what's around him. Bill’s dreadful mother and her attacks on the kids and Annemarie signal the family’s unraveling. Quindlen is one of the queens of the quotidian and her recitation of the daily acts of survival makes this novel hope filled rather than melancholy. Ali and Annemarie keep calling Annie’s phone to hear her voice and we’re so connected to them that we almost think she'll answer. Yes, the ending is a touch of “happily ever after,” but it's what Annie would have wanted. If you’re looking for a book that isn't too challenging but still offers a poignant story, this is it. GPR, BC

+Miss Morgan’s Book Brigade by Janet Skeslien Charles

Charles, the author of the acclaimed The Paris Library, showcases American women volunteering in France during WWI. Jessie, a New York Public Library children’s librarian, assists residents living near the front in northeast France, holds story hours for children, and gives the children and their mothers books. In a parallel 1987 story, aspiring writer Wendy finds Jessie’s story in the NYPL archives and uncovers new information. The French and American women are intriguing, well-developed characters, and the books Jessie shares show how literacy can make a difference in this well-told tale. GPR/PP/SN This comes out tomorrow, Tuesday, April 30. 

+The Underground Library by Jennifer Ryan

The Underground Library follows several women living in London during the blitz years of WWII as they create a lending library to serve neighborhood residents who spend their nights in a tube station. It's both a romance and a chronicle of the power of community to overcome hardship, male chauvinism, and classism. It offers a glimpse of history with a happy ending. Readers who enjoyed her previous novels The Kitchen Front and The Wedding Dress Circle will find similar wartime themes in The Underground Library. GPR/PP/ SBP/SN, BC

+The Hazelbourne Ladies Motorcycle and Flying Club by Helen Simonson

This light, fluffy romance highlights the dilemma women faced in 1919 England when men returned from the war and resumed their jobs. Despite being a stellar manager in her village, Constance must find a man to marry or become a governess. Currently caring for a widow in a seaside hotel, she meets effervescent Poppy who operates a motorcycle delivery business. Poppy’s brother Harris, a Sopwith Camel pilot, has returned from combat minus a leg. His depressed state causes Poppy to act rashly hoping to help him. While this doesn't have the brilliant sarcasm of her Major Pettigrew's Last Stand, the novel will appeal to historical fiction lovers who want a witty escape with a message. PP This will be out on May 7, 2024.

+The White Lady by Jacqueline Winspear

The White Lady follows former spy Elinor White from age twelve in Belgium at the start of WWI through her posting in WWII and then to her current life in rural Kent, England in 1947. When a family moves in next door, Elinor is enamored with Susie, the daughter. When Susie’s father’s infamous London gangster family threatens them, Elinor seeks help from old friends and takes action. Reliving her past haunts Elinor, but her wartime experience, skills, and courage aid her in her quest to save the family. The novel highlights the always horrific and often necessary conflicts of war while showing that identifying who the enemy is isn't easy. This stand-alone historical mystery is a departure from Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs’ tales. (2023)

Saturday, April 6, 2024

I Cheerfully Refuse by Leif Enger

I Cheerfully Refuse by Leif Enger is a hope-filled adventure tale set in the not-too-distant future on and along the shores of Lake Superior. The novel is Odysseus meets Orpheus mixed with a touch of Treasure Island in an increasingly illiterate society where a small ruling class makes and enforces all rules with cruelty and vengeance. Enger is best known for his character-driven, poetic novel Peace Like a River and his other tender novels set in the upper Midwest. This is his first foray into apocalyptic fiction, where he retains the beauty of the luminous descriptions and strong characters we love from his earlier books.

Lark is a used bookseller who buys and loves books in a world that both bans and burns them. Her husband Rainy, who’s madly in love with her, is a bass player who shows the reader the healing power of music. They take in Kellan, an escaped indentured servant (yes, indentured servitude has returned to the U. S.), who arrives at Lark’s shop with an advance copy of a mid-20th century unpublished manuscript, I Cheerfully Refuse, by her favorite poet/essayist. The foreshadowing in that title lets us know that these characters won’t readily give up what they consider essential. 

The first third of the book sets up the new world order and the incandescent landscape Lark and Rainy inhabit. Soon oligarchs and their followers, searching for what they believe Kellen has stolen, kill Lark, so Rainy flees into Lake Superior on an ancient sailboat with an unstable motor. This is where the book veers and Lake Superior becomes what Enger agrees is “the beating heart of the book.” Rainy’s journey there mirrors the coming of the Tashi Comet as he, a kind and virtuous character, begins to thaw from his frozen state of grief on the unpredictable waters of the inland sea when he rescues Sol, a ten-year-old girl also escaping demons, and he further endangers himself. Like Orpheus, Rainy and Sol travel through a frightening underworld chased by an evil villain as Rainy uses his music to overpower that evil. Their travails also mirror those in Treasure Island with its inebriated cast, elusive treasure, and mutineers. 

The novel celebrates the transformative power of learning to love and care for another and the importance of being true to oneself. This sailing adventure attacks the consequences of climate change and the threat of absolute rulers and their intoxicating temptations. Rainey sums up his music with its power to calm even the most horrible and powerful in this musing: “Eventually, I came down on the bedrock of an old American hymn. An earnest chant from before my time, when the church was briefly other than an instrument of war. I liked it for its clarity and yearning, its warm dawn of a chorus.” Then he observes, “What scares me is the notion we are all one rotten moment, one crushed hope or hollow stomach from stuffing someone blameless in a cage.” 

Summing it Up: Read this hopeful sailing adventure with its conniving characters chasing the kind, courageous people who are fighting against what seems to be an impenetrable controlling class. Stick with the beginning of the book as it builds the new world, then soar with speed under a heavy wind when Rainy sets sail to save himself and rescue Sol. Ron Charles of The Washington Post calls it “the sweetest apocalyptic novel yet” and “an alluring itinerary toward hope.” I agree.

Rating:  5 Stars 

Publication Date: April 2, 2024

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

Author Website: 

Interview with the Author: 

What Others Are Saying: 


Foreword Reviews: 

Publishers Weekly: 

The Star Tribune: 

The Washington Post: 

A book that reads like music, both battle hymn and love song for our world. A true epic—heartbreaking, terrifyingly prophetic, but above all, radically hopeful.  — Violet Kupersmith, author of Build Your House Around My Body

“There’s a playfulness and a seriousness of purpose to the latest from the Minnesota novelist, a spirit of whimsy that keeps hope flickering even in times of darkest despair.” — Kirkus Reviews

Sunday, January 21, 2024

The Waters by Bonnie Jo Campbell

The Waters by Bonnie Jo Campbell is a Brothers Grimm fairy tale-like rendition of a rural noir narrative with exquisite descriptions of the land and the people formed by it. Hermine “Herself” Zook has three daughters. Primrose, the eldest, is a driven, justice-seeking California lawyer. Mary Rose, called Molly, is a rigid, church-going nurse who lives nearby. Rose Thorn, who’s lazy and beautiful, is desired by most men in their area of southwest Michigan. Eleven-year-old Dorothy, Hermine’s granddaughter called Donkey, because she was fed donkey milk when she was born, lives with Hermine on her island in the midst of vast wetlands. Donkey is a genius who loves math, has never been to school, and has the characteristics of a woodland sprite. The Waters is set within 6,000 acres of state-protected land near the fictional town of Whiteheart, Michigan where Hermine cleverly restricts access to her island home.

Campbell’s Once Upon a River is one of my long-time favorite novels and The Waters is reminiscent of that book in its gorgeous rendering of the land, the people who populate it, and the strength and resilience built into the main characters. The Waters opens like a fairy tale with “Once upon a time M’Sauga Island was the place desperate mothers abandoned baby girls and where young women went seeking to prevent babies altogether.” The Waters highlights the importance of women having the right and ability to determine if they should have children while also celebrating women who choose to have them and caring for the children themselves.

The Waters is slow to build and readers desiring a fast-paced novel won’t find it here. What they will find is a deep and abiding concern for taking care of our land and for making sure that we heal the earth and those it harms when our byproducts do damage. Campbell explores the elusiveness of these tasks:

“In the Michigan state government, environmental protections were relaxed, and the plans to clean up the mounds of paper mill waste in the Waters were delayed for lack of funding. The legislature justified these decisions by saying they would instead institute tax breaks to benefit businesses, although no business in Whiteheart benefitted from the lower taxes. 

The Whiteheart post office closed that winter, so everybody now had to drive eight or ten miles around the Waters to the Potawatomi branch, and people missed talking to their neighbors while waiting in line. Teenagers, always the most creative and innovative members of any community, learned how to cook methamphetamine over burn barrel fires. A handful of girls cut themselves secretly with razor blades for the rush of sensation it gave them, and one boy shot himself in the head with his father’s pistol because of how some other kids talked to him at school. He didn’t die, but people said maybe he should have, given how he ended up.”

Summing it Up:

Read The Waters to enjoy its portrait of rural southern Michigan, reap its environmental insights, and meet Donkey, a unique, otherworldly character. Stick with it for its caring ending and the way it tells the story slant. If you haven’t read Once Upon a River, rectify that immediately. Campbell is one of our best writers, a National Book Award finalist, and a strong supporter of the environment. The Waters is a “Read with Jenna” Book Club selection.

A Note: Jenna Bush Hager of the Today Show’s “Read with Jenna” Book Club says “if you loved Where the Crawdads Sing, you’re going to love, and I’m saying love, our first read of 2024.” I didn’t find the books to be that similar other than on the surface. Yes, both feature precocious girls in rural settings, but The Waters is a meditation with an otherworldly feel whereas Where the Crawdads Sing is primarily a murder mystery with a realistic exploration of flora and fauna. 

Rating:  4 Stars 

Publication Date: January 9, 2024

Category: Fiction, Gourmet, Super Nutrition, Book Club

Author Website:

What Others are Saying:

Foreword Reviews: 

Kirkus Reviews: 

Los Angeles Times: 

The Washington Post: 

“Baggy writing, drawn-out scenes, and twee character names aren’t doing this story any favors, but Campbell’s immersive descriptions manage to suck the reader into its swampy setting. Patient readers will be carried away.” —Publishers Weekly

Tuesday, January 9, 2024

California Bear by Duane Swierczynski

California Bear by twice Edgar-nominated Duane Swierczynski is my first of Swierczynski’s books, but it won't be my last. I can't wait to read everything he’s written. The mystery begins when Jack Queen, who’s served ten years in prison for a supposed revenge killing of running over a man implicated in Queen’s wife's death, is released from prison. Cato Hightower, a wild ex-cop, spearheaded the effort to overturn Jack’s conviction and Hightower expects Queen to reward him by helping him blackmail the infamous “California Bear.”

The book begins with the Bear himself ruminating: 

“The California Bear, a serial torturer-murderer who had eluded justice for close to four decades, wanted a cookie.

He really shouldn't. Not with the diabetes and all. And he knew his wife would kill him if she found out he had raided her secret stash. But what was life without the little indulgences?

The man was seventy-two years old. Back when he was the Bear, he liked to bind his victims with ligatures he found around their homes (extension cords, shoe laces, medical tubing) and beat them senseless with his meaty fists. But right now, all this man cared about was pushing aside the rows of grease-flecked cookbooks on the top shelf over the fridge to gain access to the motherlode: a family-size package of Nutter Butters—his wife’s favorite.”

Jack Queen’s only desire is to see his fourteen-year-old daughter Matilda who’s in the hospital after recently being diagnosed with leukemia. Matilda, a genius who refers to herself as “The Girl Detective,” doesn't know if her dad is a killer:

“And when the Girl Detective looked him in the eyes in a couple of days, she would ask him the question she’d been too young (and too frightened) to ask at the time of his trial:

Did you do it?

To truly believe him, however, and repair their fractured relationship, the Girl Detective would have to discover the truth for herself.”

Queen and Hightower are inept blackmailers and the California Bear seems likely to escape their “gang that can't shoot straight” attempts to get the money Hightower thinks the Bear possesses until a twist that only someone with Swierczynski’s talent and creativity could imagine takes place. 

Summing it Up:

Each character in this tour de force is unique, entertaining, and like no other you've encountered. This phenomenal, intelligent mystery has enough plot twists, engaging characters, and “aha” moments filled with both compassion and desert-dry humor to please even the most discerning reader. And that ending: it's clever, kind, and exceptional. I’m begging Mr. Swierczynski for a sequel with Matilda in the starring role. 

Rating: 5 Stars 

Publication Date: January 9, 2024

Category: Fiction, Five Stars, Mysteries and Thrillers, Sushi with Green Tea Sorbet, Book Club

Author Blog:

What Others are Saying:

Library Journal: 

Publishers Weekly:

“This book was written straight from the heart and I won't ever forget it.” Eli Cranor, author of Don’t Know Tough and Ozark Dogs