Wednesday, July 30, 2014

After the Wind by Lou Kasischke

After the Wind is a compelling account of one man's journey almost to the top of Mount Everest.  It's captivating because it's Lou Kasischke's honest tale of his decision to abandon his quest just as he was close to accomplishing his goal.  It's more than an adventure story because it's also Kasischke's heart-wrenching story of why he turned around.

I cannot be objective about this book because I worked with the author for several months last year and I have a deep emotional connection to this book.  Lou told me he wanted to publish the book he’d written seventeen years previously and had rewritten over the years.  He hired me to read it and write a review of it as I would if it were to be included on this review site. In one section of that mock review I stated “His story is too wordy and he often lapses into explaining what he's just successfully shown the reader but the story is such a strong one that this reader forgave him for wanting to elaborate on it.”  After reading my words, Lou hired me to note specific observations and to make recommendations as well as to copy edit the book. Last summer and fall Lou worked harder than anyone I’ve ever coached to tighten his work and to concentrate on his objectives for writing and publishing his story.  I reread After the Wind six times as Lou continually endeavored to improve it.  I believe that Lou’s book now concisely tells the story of his remarkable journey as seen through his eyes and it carefully sticks to his main objective of honoring his love for his wife, Sandy.  That said, I’m glad to report that “Kirkus Reviews,” one of the toughest review publications in the business, gave After the Wind a glowing, starred review.

In addition to being an account of one of the world’s worst climbing tragedies, this book is enhanced by magnificent illustrations. Artist Jane Cardinal’s drawings set the book apart from other depictions of the disaster because they portray the emotions, the weather, and the absolute immediacy of the trek.  I consider Jane a good friend; we worked together on another book that she illustrated and I edited so it’s not easy for me to be objective about her or her work but I firmly believe that the stark simplicity of her drawings make this book something singularly beautiful. Jane is recognized internationally as an artist, illustrator, and iconographer and her talent is firmly on display in After the Wind. 
This is a book that should get a lot of attention because Kasischke was a part of the team so famously portrayed in Jon Krakauer's celebrated account, Into Thin Air.  Readers of Krakauer's story will quickly note that Kasischke views some things differently than Krakauer did.  After the Wind asks serious questions about why the tragedy occurred.  As a survivor, Kasischke's pondering makes the reader wonder if embedding a journalist was part of the problem that led to the death of five members of their team near Everest's summit. 

Kasischke takes the reader along with him on the trek and the sacrifices, cold, misery, and dangers made this reader wonder why any happily married, sane, successful man would undertake such a perilous trip.  Thankfully, Kasischke tells the reader why while showing the doubts he entertained.  Kasischke interweaves the adventure aspect of his trek with the ever present “still small voice” of his wife – the voice that perched on his shoulder, inhabited his heart, and forced him to question. 

Kasischke tells a story that readers of adventure books like Unbroken and Into Thin Air will want to devour“Everest,” the new movie about the tragedy, is set to debut in September, 2015, and it should add to the debate about why the tragedy transpired. Read this book before seeing the movie that should be a blockbuster with stars like Jake Gyllenhaal, Jason Clarke, Kira Knightley, John Hawkes, Michael Kelly, and Emily Watson.  Mark Derwin plays Kasischke and Josh Brolin portrays the incomparable Beck Weathers who is someone I feel I know after Kasischke’s portrayal of him. 

Summing it Up:  Read After the Wind for a powerful account of the 1996 Everest tragedy as seen through the eyes of a survivor who asks hard questions about what went wrong while taking the reader along on his cold, harrowing journey. After the Wind honors those who died on the mountain on that infamous day by sharing new insights into their quest. Read this account so you’ll understand why Lou Kasischke needed to be certain that he lived a story he could tell. 

Footnote:  I strongly suggest that you purchase this book from an independent bookstore in northern Michigan where Lou Kasischke lives.  It won’t cost any more than buying it on Amazon (it may be less) and you’ll be able to obtain an autographed copy.  Between the Covers and McLean & Eakin Booksellers will quickly mail you a copy as they have them in stock.

Rating:  5 stars 

Category: Nonfiction, Soul Food, Super Nutrition, Book Club

Publication date: 2014

Author’s Website:

What Others Are Saying:

Monday, July 28, 2014

Lucky Us by Amy Bloom

Lucky Us comes out tomorrow and it’s quite simply wonderful.  Lucky readers, you’re in for a treat: Lucky Us is incandescent and eerily beautiful as well as quirky and witty. You know you have a winner when you find a book that grabs you with the opening sentence:

“My father’s wife died. My mother said we should drive down to his place and see what might be in it for us.” 

With that thought, 11-year-old Eva’s mother abandons her on the doorstep of her absent father’s home where she’s tossed in with her beautiful actress half-sister, 16-year-old Iris, and their negligent father.  The girls run away to California where Iris acts in movies until “ruined” by an affair with a famous actress who abandons her when revealing their love threatens her career. Meanwhile Eva transforms herself like a displaced person to become all that everyone in her upside-down life needs. Taking place from 1939 to 1948, Lucky Us shows how family is much more than genetics especially in war time when resilience is the only thing that really matters. 

In Lucky Us the plot is credible and engaging but it’s the rich characters that will capture you and make you cancel plans to stay in their lives.  A road trip as memorable as that of Thelma and Louise sets the scene for the emerging importance of each character and Eva’s role in each of their lives.  And like the best road trips, the reader isn’t ever entirely sure where it will ultimately end until the last ah-hah.  Shocks and surprises abound and it would be a detriment to readers to reveal any of them. Lucky Us is packed with events that don’t always seem lucky when they occur but the resilient characters still “Keep Calm and Carry On.”

Lucky Us also serves up an unexpected bonus in that each chapter is named with a jazz title from the era.  These set the period mood and put the reader in the movie sets, automobiles, and wartime beauty parlors where the novel’s action takes place. Bloom’s website provides links to listen to the chapter openers and going back to reread parts of the novel after listening to the music is like getting extra hot fudge on an already delicious sundae. 

Bloom offers the titles as presents saying “For me, chapter titles, like short story titles, are both gifts to the reader, a little extra, and prisms through which the chapter can be both previewed and reviewed.  If you know the song, you can hear it playing, faintly in your head.  And if you don’t, you haven’t missed out – the words themselves still evoke and invite.  They can’t take that away from me.  Spring will be a little late this year . . .”  
Whether you choose to listen to the music as you read or after, the songs will delight you as would a thirteenth doughnut put in your hand by a kindly baker.

Summing it Up: You’ll feel like you’re sitting at a 1940s soda fountain counter sipping a creamy milkshake surrounded by characters whose adventures you want to join when you read this captivating novel.  But when you climb down from the stool and head home, the characters, the sweetness of redemption, and the brilliant sentences will enter your soul.  

Rating:  5 stars   

Category: Fiction, Gourmet, Pigeon Pie (Historical Fiction), Book Club

Publication date: July 29, 2014

Author’s Website:

What Others are Saying:

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson

Fourth of July Creek is as gourmet a piece of writing as an author can produce and the fact that this is a debut novel is mind boggling. The writing is so smooth it goes down like lobster dipped in melted butter. It feels as if Henderson’s impeccable phrasing has translated English into a whole new language.  Yes, you may need a dictionary to get every nuanced sentence exactly as intended and the book is a tad long but Henderson’s words aren’t prim or academic.  The book is primarily set in Montana and the characters’ cadence and speech reflect their setting.

Fourth of July Creek is a brutally shattering tale of families that go off track without knowing they’ve slipped. Pete Snow is a rural Montana social worker whose own family makes dysfunctional seem like a step up. When he meets mountain man Jeremiah Pearl through Pearl’s son Benjamin who has scurvy and giardia, he hopes to gain Pearl’s trust. Pearl is a paranoid survivalist hell-bent on preparations for the Biblical End Times and he doesn’t stay in one place long enough to listen. When the FBI and other agencies enter the search for Pearl, Snow is caught in the cross-hairs.

Pete Snow is a flawed man; he drinks too much and he’s lonely and confused but he consistently tries to do the right thing by the kids on his watch. He shows up when and where he thinks there’s need.  That should be a good thing but the book’s epigraph predicts that it may not be so: 
If I knew for certain’ty that a man was coming to my house with the conscious design of doing me good, I should run for my life.  – Henry David Thoreau

Snow’s “conscious design” to help Cecil, an emotionally damaged boy, has several unintended consequences no one could predict.  Even Snow’s turning out of his own brother, a fugitive running from a demented parole officer, doesn’t work as it should.  The side story of Snow’s 13-year-old daughter Rachel who’s on the run and its reminder that Pete can’t find his own child to save her is almost too bleak to be palatable.  The reader knows Rachel will end up in deep trouble yet it’s still difficult to watch her descend.  In Rachel’s tale, Henderson’s ability to write so well is something of a curse as it forces the reader into her downward spiral.

This novel’s grace is Henderson’s dialogue and his pacing.  As Pete Snow sits in a diner, the waitress says “I could just spit.”  Snow replies, “I’ll bet you could do better’n that.”

She has had a hard life – you can tell from the way her face has aged, the frowns etched there – but Pete’s remark elicits an endangered smile. He’s recognized her, something deeply true about her, and it is a pleasant thing to be seen and for her toughness to be acknowledged.

“Yeah, I could do better than that. What’ll you have hon?”

Summing it Up: Smith Henderson has written a novel that recognizes that people, even people like Jeremiah Pearl and Rachel Snow, who’ve run away from life, still want to be acknowledged. Fourth of July Creek has already been nominated for the Laherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize and the prognosticators predict more nominations and awards to come.  Read this debut novel to taste the flawlessly rendered, authentic America that Henderson serves up on a polished-to-a-high-sheen platter.  Cormac McCarthy fans will love the setting and language if not the length. At 467 pages, it’s just a touch too long.

Rating:  4 stars   
Category: Fiction, Gourmet, Book Club
Publication date: June 3, 2014
What Others are Saying:

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Cop Town by Karin Slaughter

It’s officially summer so you may be hopping on a plane, heading to the beach, or for the unlucky - working countless hours at the office while under stress that makes it difficult to relax.  Regardless of your summer circumstances, Karin Slaughter’s new police mystery, Cop Town, is the perfect novel to help you make your summer escape. Sometimes violent crime, a serial killer on the loose, and a little blood and gore are just the right recipe to combat a hot summer day.

Slaughter, best known for her acclaimed Will Kent series, has written a stand-alone novel set in 1974 Atlanta where the cops are almost all racist, anti-Semitic, homophobic, women-hating creeps. Maggie Lawson is a young, but seasoned cop from a family of policemen, a very dysfunctional family with a sad history. She hates the way the department functions but knows enough not to fight city hall. But then Maggie’s brother Jimmy’s partner is killed by a serial cop killer and Jimmy only escapes because the killer’s gun jams.  Maggie can’t call this business as usual especially when some of the reported details of the murder don’t support the evidence. Soon Maggie is paired with rookie cop Kate Murphy, a pretty, privileged widow, who’s smarter and more tenacious than the rest of the squad expect. Her first day on the job is much worse than a “girl” from her background could have imagined but she simply won’t quit. Kate has lots to prove and solving the biggest crime in Atlanta would demonstrate that she’s more than what others expect. Kate is a character who could star in almost any award-winning literary novel.  Slaughter develops her before the reader’s eyes as if she were a Polaroid print coming into focus.  Here’s hoping Slaughter decides to grow a series around Kate Murphy.

The 1974 setting is brilliantly evoked especially with the playing of Carole King’s Tapestry album in the background of many emotional scenes. The setting also showcases the low regard for women and minorities in the workplace forty years ago. These details make the book much more than a police procedural – it’s a nuanced portrait of the way people treat the “other” when they can get away with it.

Good mysteries ask questions.  This one asks many including: Who is this shooter who’s executing cops in pairs?   Who are these people who treat the law as their own personal smorgasbord, taking whatever they wish from it regardless of who gets hurt?   Will Kate and Maggie capture the killer before becoming his next victims?  Have things really changed in the last forty years?

Masterful mystery writers have one essential characteristic in common – pacing. Slaughter’s unrelenting excellence in using pace to make her plot twists sing make this thriller one that will keep even the jaded mystery reader turning the pages for more.  There's much more to Cop Town than this review will divulge and readers will discover many secrets as Slaughter's careful pacing cleverly reveals them. 

Summing it Up: When you pack for the beach, make sure you include Cop Town with the hot dogs, beer, and beach toys.  This thriller will reward you as much as s’mores and fireworks.

Rating:  5 stars   
Category: Chinese Carryout, Fiction, Five Stars, Mysteries and Thrillers
Publication date: June 24, 2014
What Others are Saying:

Friday, June 20, 2014

We Are Called to Rise by Laura McBride

I thought this was going to be one of those outstanding but sad novels like The Yellow Birds or Billie Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.  I thought it was going to be a beautifully written book that would help me bear witness to the effects of war and poverty.  I love those novels because they challenge me and imbed me in a world I need to understand.  But, We Are Called to Rise is a different animal.  Yes, it’s beautifully written, bears witness, and challenges but in addition it offers incredible hope.  It blindsided me with the unexpected pleasure of watching people do the right thing and it astonished me with the simple joy of observing people who care.

Set in the Las Vegas most of us don’t know, the Las Vegas where real people live oblivious to the neon and glitz of the strip, four realistic characters weave intersecting stories into a cohesive whole. Bashkim is an earnest eight-year-old boy working to help his Albanian refugee parents survive. He seems older than eight because the turmoil and poverty in his home force him to be wise.  Given a school assignment to write a local soldier serving in Iraq, Bashkim pens a letter that sets up a chain of unexpected events.

Luis, the tormented recipient of Bashkim’s letter, lies in a bed at Walter Reed Hospital recovering from an injury he doesn’t recall happening. His anguished thoughts and dreams spill onto the page making the reader wonder if he’ll ever be able to tell enough to be helped. Enter Dr. Ghosh, a VA psychiatrist, who listens and offers him caring treatment and possibly a way out of his troubles.

Average-seeming Avis opens the book as her husband unexpectedly leaves her for another woman.  She’s also deeply concerned about her son Nate’s mental health after his third stint in Iraq. She lost her baby daughter Emily when she was barely pregnant with Nate and her life is a testament to “how quickly life could change, how quickly everything important could disappear, to always be trying to feel this unexpectedly beautiful life to its core.”

Roberta is a lawyer, a Las Vegas native. She serves as a volunteer advocate for children. She cares deeply and sometimes gets hurt.  She’s anxious to make certain that Bashkim and children like him get what they need not what the system spits out for them.  She and other “helpers” in the novel try to do what’s right.

What if everyone worked together to do what was best for a child?  What if “the helpers” all really helped?  What if the staffs at all our VA hospitals had the time, training, and temperament to help returning veterans as Dr. Ghosh tries to help Luis?  The epigraph of the novel tells us what’s to come as it hints at what could happen if . . .

We never know how high we are
Till we are called to rise;
And then, if we are true to plan,
Our statures touch the skies
-- Emily Dickinson

Author Laura McBride says, “I wanted to tell a story that might make a reader have a big feeling, the sense that no matter how cruel life could be in a given moment, no matter how terrible the consequences of a tiny mistake, it was ultimately beautiful to live.  I didn’t set out to write a book about war or poverty or racism, I just wanted the reader to love a child enough to feel devastated when that child’s heart was broken and euphoric when that child got a chance at hope.”  Readers: Debut author McBride accomplished her goal.

Summing it Up:
This novel gave me hope and a feeling that all might just be right in the world if each of us answered the call to rise. Laura McBride eloquently showcases a group of people who rise to help others who probably wouldn’t make it without their help. She touches the sky with this authentic, uplifting story of a boy I’ll never forget and the people (they aren’t characters to me – they’re real people) who cared enough to try to help him and others in need.  I’ve never wanted to travel to Las Vegas but I could change my mind if I could visit Bashkim, Luis, Avis, Roberta and some other people I already know and love who happen to live there. 

Rating: 5 stars   
Category: Fiction, Five Stars, Grandma’s Pot Roast, Super Nutrition, Book Club
Publication date: June 3, 2014
What Others are Saying:

Saturday, June 14, 2014

The Farm by Tom Rob Smith

The Farm is a psychological thriller in the vein of Gone Girl or Tana French’s novels. Daniel lives in London and his parents have retired to what he believes is a bucolic life on a remote farm in Sweden.  His father calls him and suddenly everything changes.

Your mother...she's not well, his father tells him. She's been imagining things - terrible, terrible things.

His father says his mother has had a psychotic breakdown and has been committed to a mental hospital.  So Daniel rushes to Heathrow to fly to see her. Before boarding he gets a call from his mother who says:

Everything that man has told you is a lie.  I’m not mad. . . Meet me at Heathrow.  If you refuse to believe me, I will no longer consider you my son.

Tilde, Daniel’s mother, says his father is involved in a criminal conspiracy and wants her out of the way. Who can Daniel believe?  Tilde carefully lays out a strange tale packed with facts that may or may not prove her allegations. Daniel, too, is harboring a secret – he’s never told his parents that he’s gay.  Smith, known for his espionage thrillers set in Russia, takes a new tack with this riveting tale of trolls, elk, strangely carved wood, and the darkness of Sweden. Smith’s Child 44 trilogy is a superb trio of espionage tales but this stand-alone might just top them all.  

This is a short review as revealing too much of the tale will rob the reader of delightfully diabolical discoveries. I’ve included a link to an interview with the author on National Public Radio.  Read it AFTER you read the novel – not before.

Summing it Up: Devour this suspense-filled thriller and watch your mind spin as you try to surmise just who’s telling the truth.  What would you do if your mother and father, whom you’ve always trusted, told you conflicting tales?  Could your gentle father be a criminal or is your strong mother imagining it all?

Caveat: This is one of the books involved in the fight between Amazon and Hachette Publishing which means that it’s probably going to be less expensive to purchase or download The Farm from independent bookstores or other sites as Amazon is currently selling it with no discount. Many independent bookstores are offering deep discounts on Hachette titles so shop carefully.

Rating: 5 stars   
Category: Gourmet, Chinese Carryout, Book Club, Fiction, Five Stars, Mysteries and Thrillers 

Publication date: June 3, 2014

Interview with the Author (Listen to or read this AFTER your read the book):

What Others are Saying:

Friday, May 9, 2014

Last Minute Treats for Mother’s Day

Of course you should take your mother or wife out to dinner or brunch and perhaps buy her fancy chocolates or a fine bottle of wine she’d never buy for herself. But to linger in her heart, select the perfect read that she’ll enjoy long after the meal ends. Whether your Mom reads electronically, prefers hardcovers because they last, likes audio books so she can listen on the way to work, or enjoys paperbacks because they’re easy to take to the beach – choose something that fits her reading interests. 

For the Mom who Loves History, Mystery and a Great Story:

The Secret of Magic by Deborah Johnson is set in 1946 when Regina Robichard, a young lawyer working with Thurgood Marshall in the New York NAACP legal offices, heads to a small town in Mississippi to investigate the death of an African-American GI who died near his home as he was returning from the war. Ms. Robichard is intrigued by a letter about the case from the reclusive white author (M.P. Calhoun) who wrote her favorite childhood book.  She soon learns that racism is different in the south but not in the ways she expected.  She doesn’t feel alone in her blackness there but is wary of the almost magical forces that control the town and its people. Mom will escape into this novel and emerge wanting to suggest it to her book club.

For the Mother who Likes Baseball, World War II and a Story with Meaning:

The Powers by Valerie Sayers tells of life in New York in 1941 when war looms and Joe DiMaggio’s hitting streak entrances everyone. Seventeen-year-old Agnes O’Leary lives with her father, sisters, and the indomitable Babe, her grandmother, who’s cared for all of them since her mother’s suicide when she was very young.  Babe, a diehard Yankee fan, knows that her prayers and powers fuel DiMaggio and the Yanks. She’s the glue that holds the center in this novel and DiMaggio is her alter image.  His scenes are magnificent and he too has superstitions that seem magical.  Agnes’ two inseparable buddies are in love with her. One has become a pacifist influenced by the Jesuits and Dorothy Day. The other is of German descent and Babe worries that he might be a Jew.  Reminiscent of Wait Till Next Year and The Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson this novel will appeal to baseball fans, WWII aficionados, and those looking for a simple story of love and doing what’s right. Ron Charles of the Washington Post calls Babe a “baseball loving Olive Kitteridge.”  The narrative grips but Babe and DiMaggio reign. It also cries for discussion of war, stereotypes, prejudice, mental health, and responsibility. 

For Every Mother who Loves Books – The Perfect Mother’s Day Gift:

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin 
I was lucky enough to be at McLean & Eakin Booksellers in Petoskey, Michigan this week where I heard Ms. Zevin speak.  She’s brilliant, kind, and is a champion of books and bookstores. I didn’t think I could like the book more but even though I’d already read it in an advance copy from the publisher on my e-Reader, I paid retail to buy a hardcover copy because “it’s a keeper.”  Read my review here:

For the Mom You Call “The Church Lady:”

Faith Unraveled: How a Girl Who Knew All the Answers Learned to Ask the Questions by Rachel Held Evans is a wonderful look at Christianity today. Evans grew up in a fundamentalist church in the town where the Scopes “Monkey” trial took place.  Her book was originally titled “Evolving in Monkey Town” and evolve she does and “church lady” mothers will enjoy observing her trek. Evans confesses: “As a Christian, I’ve been hurtful. I’m judgmental of people I think are judgmental. At twenty-seven, I almost always root for the underdog, and sometimes I get the feeling that God does too. . .  I’m a lot of things, but fair and balanced I am not.”  She says that the more she learned, the less she felt she knew and the less she felt she knew the more she learned. If your mother likes to follow faith journeys to enhance her own, she’ll adore this memoir.

For the Mother who Enjoys Escaping into a Romance - One with a Foodie Twist:

Delicious! by Ruth Reichl is happiness distilled in a novel.  

Read the full review here: