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 

Friday, January 5, 2024

Murder Outside the Box by Saralyn Richard


Murder Outside the Box is the fourth entry in the Detective Parrott mystery series that began with Murder in the One Percent. Set in the Brandywine area near Philadelphia, the mystery begins when Detective Oliver Parrott responds to a call about a baby left in a cardboard box with two bottles of breast milk on the doorstep of a caretaker’s cottage on a sprawling estate. When Parrott sees the longing in the reaction to the baby from the childless young woman who lives with her caretaker husband in the cottage, he wonders if her desire for a child might have anything to do with the baby. He later ponders whether he might be viewing the scene through his own circumstances as he has recently learned that a possible fertility problem may interfere with his wife’s and his ability to have children. 

The plot intensifies when a young woman who’d recently given birth is found dead in a remote area on a nearby estate owned by a billionaire Scotch whiskey baron. DNA evidence shows that the baby and the woman are not related and Parrott seeks clues in the breast milk left with the baby. Parrott and the forensic team supporting him engage with sophisticated tools and a clever collaborative effort to determine the identities of the woman and child and to find the woman’s killer.

Author Saralyn Richard offers convincing red herrings that add to the suspense while providing the reader with information leading to the determination of whodunit without sacrificing character development or insight into why the murder was committed. The book also shares fascinating information about fertility, DNA, and databases.

Summing it Up: Read Murder Outside the Box to follow one of my favorite characters, Detective Oliver Parrott, as he solves another mystery. Settle in on a long winter’s night to a tale that will challenge your detecting ability while offering an escape from the dreary days. Play along with Detective Parrott as he looks for evidence and clues “outside the box” to solve a murder that seems impossible to resolve.

A note: I first met Saralyn Richard on a baseball field when both our sons were young. She later moved to Texas and I became reacquainted with her when a favorite publicist sent me a review copy of Murder in the One Percent believing I would enjoy it, which I did. I share that and the fact that when I begin reading a book, I immerse myself in the characters and setting and rarely think about the author or anything else. So, when I came across a minor character, a journalist named Trina Hayes, in Murder Outside the Box, I first considered it a simple coincidence. A paragraph later, I recalled that Saralyn was the book’s author and realized that she had most likely used my name with intention. I am grateful for the honor. I also applaud her sharing information about fertility in the novel. As one of many grandparents of children who exist because of science and the team at Northwestern Medicine Center for Fertility and Reproductive Medicine Chicago, I am most appreciative.

Rating: 5 Stars 

Publication Date: January 5, 2024

Category: Fiction, Five Stars, Mysteries and Thrillers, Book Club

Author Website: 

Author Insight: 

Interview with the Author: 

What Others are Saying:

“A masterful mystery. move it to the top of your reading list.” Avanti Centrae, best-selling author of the VanOps thriller series

“When an abandoned baby is found outside a cottage, not far from where a woman who might be the mother lies dead, Detective Parrott displays out-of-the-box thinking, as he endeavors to solve the murder and determine the baby’s parentage. Richard keeps the reader guessing while conveying the meticulous nature of police work. Reproduction and parenthood are just a few issues Parrott must deal with in the case and in his own marriage. Full of twists and surprises, Murder Outside the Box is a great addition to this series.” Debbie Mack, New York Times best-selling author of the Sam McRae and Erica Jensen mystery series

Thursday, January 4, 2024

The Best Books of 2023


Still Life with Books and Candle by Henri Matisse

In 2023, I read over 70 books that I thought were outstanding, so narrowing them down to just a few is an arbitrary choice based on my personal preferences in this moment. Ask me tomorrow, and the list might change. Presented below are my favorites—those I found phenomenal. Whether you’re in a position to sit down and read without distraction or if you can only snare the time to read or listen to a few pages without having to attend to the duties that keep you afloat, this list has something for you. There are books to comfort you, books to challenge you, books to make you laugh, and those that will make you cry. Wishing you a year in which you find the right book for the space you inhabit at the time. Descriptions of each title appear here.

My Top Five Novels of 2023:
The Berry Pickers by Amanda Peters
Good Night, Irene by Luis Alberto Urrea
Hello, Beautiful by Ann Napolitano
This Other Eden by Paul Harding
Tom Lake by Ann Patchett

The Honorable Mention Best Novels of 2023: 
Banyan Moon by Thao Thai
The Caretaker by Ron Rash
Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr (2021)
Dinosaurs by Lydia Millet (2022)
Happiness Falls by Angie Kim
The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store by James McBride
Let Us Descend by Jesmyn Ward
Maame by Jessica George
The Measure by Nikki Erlick (2022)
The Memoirs of Stockholm Sven by Nathaniel Ian Miller (2021)
Signal Fires by Dani Shapiro (2022)
Take What You Need by Idra Novey
Tandem by Andy Mozina

The Best Debut Fiction of 2023:
The Berry Pickers by Amanda Peters

The Honorable Mention Best Debut Fiction of 2023:
Banyan Moon by Thao Thai
Countries of Origin by Javier Fuentes
Maame by Jessica George
The Measure by Nikki Erlick (2022)
The Memoirs of Stockholm Sven by Nathaniel Ian Miller (2021)
Memphis by Tara Stringfellow (2022)
Pineapple Street by Jenny Jackson

The Best Historical Fiction (Pigeon Pie) Books of 2023:
The Berry Pickers by Amanda Peters
Good Night, Irene by Luis Alberto Urrea
The Memoirs of Stockholm Sven by Nathaniel Ian Miller (2021)
This Other Eden by Paul Harding

The Honorable Mention Best Historical Fiction of 2023:
Absolution by Alice McDermott
Because I Loved You by Donnaldson Brown
The Covenant of Water by Abraham Verghese
The Forger of Marseille by Linda Joy Myers
From Dust to Stardust by Kathleeen Rooney
The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store by James McBride
Horse by Geraldine Brooks (2022)
Künstlers in Paradise by Cathleen Schine
Let Us Descend by Jesmyn Ward
Mercury Pictures Presents by Anthony Marra

The Best Dessert, Pick-Me-Up Books of 2023:
Found in a Bookshop by Stephanie Butland
500 Miles from You by Jenny Colgan (2020)
The Music of the Bees by Eileen Garvin (2022)
The Museum of Ordinary People by Mike Gayle
Pineapple Street by Jenny Jackson

The Best Mysteries, Suspense, and Thrillers of 2023:
All the Sinners Bleed by S. A. Cosby
Don’t Know Tough by Eli Cranor (2022)
I Have Some Questions for You by Rebecca Makkai
Notes on an Execution by Danya Kukafka (2022)
Ozark Dogs by Eli Cranor

The Honorable Mention Best Mysteries, Suspense, and Thrillers of 2023:
Distant Sons by Tom Johnston
Everybody Knows by Jordan Harper
The Last Devil to Die by Richard Osman
Reykjavik by Ragnar Jónasson and Katrin Jakobsdóttir
Symphony of Secrets by Brendan Slocumb

The Best Nonfiction of 2023:
The Art Thief: a True Story of Love, Crime and a Dangerous Obsession by Michael Finkel
Class: a Memoir of Motherhood, Hunger, and Higher Education by Stephanie Land
Grateful: the Subversive Practice of Giving Thanks by Diana Butler Bass (2018)
A Living Remedy by Nicole Chung
Smile by Sarah Ruhl (2021)

Best Young Adult Novel of 2023
All My Rage by Sabaa Tahir (2022)