Saturday, November 15, 2014

Words and Their Meanings by Kate Bassett

Words and Their Meanings is a young adult, debut novel that adults will appreciate as much as teens.  Anna’s Uncle Joe died after a brief illness. A college student only a few years older than Anna, he was raised as her brother, her confidant, and her best friend and Anna can’t cope with the loss in this smart, inventive, insightful tale. Anna’s first-person rendering of her grief makes for a “littmus lozenge” of a story.  If you read Kate DiCamillo’s Because of Winn-Dixie, you’ll recall that Littmus Lozenges were a special candy that tasted both sweet and sad. They tasted of melancholy and made people recall happiness and sorrow. Words and Their Meanings is a wonder of a story that, like an enchanted “littmus lozenge” confection, inhabits the reader and creates a magical place where joy and grief can both abide.

Anna’s family and friends worry about her and she’s promised that on Joe’s one-year “deadaversary” she’ll stop her peculiar mourning. Does that mean that she’ll quit practicing her invention of “coffin yoga” which means that every day she lies still as if she were dead while concentrating on her morbid thoughts? Will she stop writing unsettling quotes from rocker Patti Smith on her arm?  Will she start writing her own words again? Or will her parents have to take more drastic measures than her current therapy?  

Anna has no desire to reconnect with the world.  She’s always been acknowledged as an amazing writer and she’s lived for her writing but since Joe died, she can’t even consider putting words on paper.  And that’s a real problem because words – and their meanings – were her life. Then a strange note indicates that Joe may have had secrets he’d kept from her and Anna’s grandfather has an accident and Anna must think beyond herself.  That, of course, becomes the right time to give in to romance - again allowing Anna to see the world and its meaning through someone else’s eyes.

This could have been a gloomy tale but it’s a lively, yet intentionally thoughtful, story of Anna’s growth and it’s told in realistic, adolescent language. There’s no dumbing down, just the truth as a word-loving teen would speak it. One reason everything works is that Bassett uses ingenious, yet fitting, devices to relate information.  Anna’s grandfather’s origami paper cranes tell secrets and allow the reader to watch Anna unfold them.

Another wonderful aspect of this novel is that the characters in it reflect the real world especially the setting, a place similar to the author’s hometown.  At the Words and Their Meanings launch, I asked Bassett about her populating the novel with teens of different races and backgrounds not just the upper middle class white teens seen in most YA novels.  She said that since she’d grown up in Saginaw, Michigan, she was writing what she knew.  It shows in her writing and it enriches the book. Buy this book because it’s a great read and will give thoughtful teens and adults much to ponder.  As a bonus, buy this book because it reflects the real America not the “white washed” pretend America often seen in young adult and children’s literature.    

Summing it Up:  Words and Their Meanings will appeal to teens that think, adults that love good writing combined with a strong story, and readers of every age that appreciate a strong voice. 

Note: This paperback original is the perfect stocking stuffer for your favorite teen.

Rating: 5 stars   
Category: Book Club, Diet Coke and Gummi Bears, Fiction, Five Stars, Gourmet
Publication date: September 11, 2014
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Wednesday, October 1, 2014

The Remedy for Love by Bill Roorbach

Eric, an upright lawyer, meets disheveled Danielle in the check-out line where she doesn’t have enough money to pay for her groceries in the latest novel from critically acclaimed, yet relatively unknown, author Bill Roorbach.

“Idly, Eric watched her unload her cart: he knew her situation too well. Sooner or later she’d be in trouble, either victim or perpetrator, and sooner or later he or one of seven other local lawyers would be called upon to defend her, or whomever had hurt her, a distasteful task in a world in which no social problem was addressed till it was a disaster, no compensation.  Ten years before, new at the game, he might have had some sympathy, but he’d been burned repeatedly.”

Despite his lack of compassion, Eric reluctantly chips in for her oranges, carrots, cans of baked beans, tortilla chips, Pop-tarts, freshly ground coffee, two boxes of wine, a big bottle of Advil, six boxes of generic mac and cheese, and oodles of packages of ramen noodles and both leave the store.

“A huge snowstorm was predicted, first big snow of the season, the inaugural flakes desultorily falling, some kind of unusual confluence of low-pressure and high-pressure and rogue systems, lots of blather on the radio as if a little snow were nuclear warfare or an asteroid bearing down.  Eric liked his old Ford Explorer at times like this, even though (as Alison always said) it was a gas pig.  He put his groceries in the back, if you could call them groceries, and swung out and across the glazed lot – last week’s ice storm – and there was the young woman, staggering and limping under that mountain of a coat but making determined progress, her seven plastic bags hanging from her arms like dead animals.  Eric pulled up beside her but she didn’t stop walking, didn’t look.

“I can give you a lift,” he called.

“Okay,” she said to his surprise, still without looking. He’d expected her to demur in some proud way.”

After driving over six miles Eric helps Danielle walk to a cabin at the end of a narrow, steep path aside a river -- a 30-minute trudge from the highway where Eric’s Explorer gets towed while he’s helping her.  He returns to the cabin and the two end up snowbound.

Quickly Eric’s check-out line prediction returned to this reader’s mind and caused me to wonder if Danielle is a social problem that should have been addressed or if she’s simply alone and isolated as Eric himself is even with all his resources.  Eric wants to rescue Danielle yet she soon learns that he hasn’t done all that well at rescuing himself and still hasn’t admitted that his long separation from his wife is real and would probably soon become permanent.

As these two lonely people slowly reveal themselves while the storm rages, Roorbach is at his best sharing their stories in refreshingly unexpected ways. He conveys their secrets not as stark “ah-hahs” but as sighing, believable manifestations. His depictions aren’t just plausible, they’re funny. Eric and Danielle reminded me of Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert in “It Happened One Night,” a movie that’s a classic comedy because its humor both disarms and involves the viewer. Hapless, stranded Eric’s and Danielle’s sexual attraction is simultaneously erotic and witty and that, my friends, is a recipe for an endearing romance that’s as appealing today as is the 1934 Oscar winner.

And the storm, oh the storm -- Roorbach’s descriptions could serve as a textbook for aspiring writers as he artfully depicts the blizzard’s torment:  

“Outside the storm was howling, a different kind of snow altogether, curtains of it blowing, already drifted to knee-deep in sculpted ridges along the ground, coming so thick and furious it was as if legions of dump trucks were emptying their loads in his face, in the world’s face, misery:  the jostling wind, the river coursing black below.”

"Something hit the roof with a thud.  Then something else, and again, and then there was a roaring like unstopping surf and bigger, jostling thumps and then cracks like lightning straight above and something crashing toward them, rumbling louder and louder inside the howling, a tsunami approaching.  Suddenly the cabin heaved on its moorings with a deep moan and squeal.”

“Then silence, then odd sighs from the woodwork, then a creaking that turned into a growling, like a creature in the yard, something that wanted to get in.”

Later: “The wind had died down.  The cabin had ceased its complaining.”

This comedic, yet sultry, sexy romance of a tale complete with engrossingly real survival scenes and shimmering prose ultimately becomes an ode to life and love. That two unlikely specimens could stumble upon each other (and themselves) during the latest “storm of the century” is enough to make anyone believe in the power of love. This is definitely on the short list for the best book I’ve read this year.

Summing it Up: Roorbach weaves equal parts survival adventure, poignant romance, slapstick comedy, and brilliantly evoked nature scenes into a colorful tapestry that will entice the most cynical reader.  It was tough for me to even think about doing anything but reading this in one sitting. 

Note: The Remedy for Love has just been named a finalist for the Kirkus Prize for nonfiction.

Rating: 5 stars   
Category: Grandma’s Pot Roast/Gourmet, Five Stars, Fiction, Book Club
Publication date: October 14, 2014
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Interview with the Author:
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Monday, August 25, 2014

In the Kingdom of Ice by Hampton Sides

Thirty-three men, 54,000 pounds of pemmican, 2,500 pounds of roast mutton, 3,000 pounds of stewed and corned beef, 3,000 pounds of salt pork, 100 pounds of tongue, 150 pounds of beef extract, a dozen barrels of concentrated lime juice to combat scurvy, barrels of brandy, porter, ale, sherry, whiskey, rum, and cases of Budweiser beer, “250 gallons of sperm oil, hundreds of pounds of tallow, thousands of wicks, and all manner of lamps – bull’s eye lanterns, globe lanterns, bunker lanterns, hand lanterns,” fifteen arc lights provided by Thomas Edison, two of Alexander Graham Bell’s new telephones for over-the-ice communication, and a host of other necessities sailed from San Francisco toward the North Pole.  Hampton Sides reveals their 1879 journey in this thrilling account. The men expected to enter a northern gulf stream that would create open waters after they broke through a “girdle” of ice pack north of the Bering Strait because that’s what prevailing theory said would be there.  Their ship, the USS Jeannette, had three masts, a reinforced bow, and an extra steam engine but it was still essentially just a wooden ship heading into what we now know was a sea of ice. Still, they had the financial support of one of the world’s wealthiest men and the scientific and engineering expertise of the U.S. Navy and some of the world’s best minds.  They also had a hand-picked crew that might make up for overly optimistic prognostications with incredible courage, skills, and downright decency. They were the darlings of the media especially since their benefactor, James Gordon Bennett, Jr., saw the voyage as a way to increase circulation of his newspapers as had his earlier folly in dispatching Stanley to find Livingston in Africa. Everyone in the world was following their expedition.

Using expedition leader Lt. George Washington De Long’s own accounts along with logs and journals by the ship’s doctor and others, Sides weaves an entertaining account of the preparations for the trek and of the harrowing encounters with ice, hunger, storms, and error-filled maps. This book is worth reading simply for the pleasure of learning about De Long, a leader, whose preparations, continuous reassessments, and careful trust in the right men to do their specific tasks could be used as a collegiate course in effective management skills.

While much of the world knew of this journey in 1879, we know very little about it and that makes this book read like a suspense-filled thriller.  I am so grateful that I didn’t know what eventually happened on the journey so I was able to follow the ship’s trek without any expectations.  Some reviews give away the ending. Don’t read them until after you read Sides’ tale.  His exceptional journalistic skills honed reporting for “Outside” magazine and writing about World War II rescues in his previous best seller, Ghost Soldiers, make this a thrilling page turner.

Summing it Up: Read this to learn about the expedition that attempted to find an open passage to the North Pole via the Bering Strait and the waters north of Alaska and Siberia in 1879.  Savor it for the intimate view of the lives of the remarkable men who sailed on the Jeannette.

Rating:  Five stars   
Category: Five Stars, Nonfiction, Super Nutrition, Book Club
Publication date: August 5, 2014
What Others are Saying:

Kirkus Reviews (Warning: this contains spoilers; read it after reading the book.):

New York Times: (Warning: this contains spoilers; read it after reading the book.):

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
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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
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