Tag Archives: Fiction

Sunday Review: How to Knit a Murder by Sally Goldenbaum

I bought this audiobook because a) it was on sale, b) the setting looked interesting, c) I’m a lifelong knitter, and d) I wanted something light but not TOO light. Most of those expectations were fulfilled.

However, before buying, I looked it up on Amazon and saw that it was listed aa #2 of series, so even though I prefer to read mysteries series in order, I thought dipping in this early wouldn’t be too bad, and if I liked it, I could go back and catch up on the opening installment without too much confusion. 

Except the label on Amazon is deceptive. This isn’t book 2 of 5. it’s book 12 of I don’t know how many—16 maybe? Apparently, the author switched publishers after 11 books, and the publisher decided to restart the numbering. Why would they do that? It’s very confusing to readers, and one of the most basic rules of marketing is not to confuse or annoy your customers.

Anyway, the whole time I was reading it, I was having difficulty remembering the characters who seemed to be the recurring cast. I’d get bits of their personalities here and there—but not enough to stick. It was like transferring to a new high school halfway through junior year and not only being unable to break into the in group but also finding it impossible to glean enough information to understand the relationships swirling around you.

The mystery was fine, although I easily spotted the essential piece of information that was tossed out casually about halfway through the book. But I just couldn’t engage enough with the knitting group to want to spend time with this town or these characters further, certainly not enough to go back and wade through 12 books to reach this point and move forward. 

I feel like I’m being unnecessarily negative and I’m punishing the author for something the publisher did, but I don’t like being led to expect something that isn’t what I’m getting. Perhaps if Kindle or one of the audiobook vendors I use offers a really cheap version of the real book 1 in the series, I’ll give it another try, or maybe I’ll eventually see if my library carries the books. But not until I’ve had a chance to let the irritation settle and see whether I develop any curiosity about the characters.

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Filed under Book Reviews, contemporary fiction, cozy mystery

Sunday Review: How the Deer Moon Hungers by Susan Wingate

The novel opens with a throat-grabbing scene narrated by the spirit of seven-year-old Tessa, who floats above a team of paramedics who are frantically trying to save her life as they transport her to an emergency room after an accident. Then the story jumps back in time several days.

Tessa and her sixteen-year-old sister Mackenzie, live on an island in the Pacific Northwest with their mother Uma, who is stressed out, overwhelmed, and raging since her husband left the family. Mackenzie—Mac—just wants to be a teenage girl, hanging out with her best friend Gemma, rolling her eyes at the things grownups do, and maybe, if she works up enough nerve, giving in to her friend’s urging to try marijuana. But because Uma is too overwhelmed to handle her current life, Mac also has to spend more time than she’d like looking after Tessa. The two sisters adore each other, but having a seven-year-old tag along can really cramp a teenager’s style.

Then the unthinkable happens. On a day when Mac and Gemma planned to do “big kid” things, they have to take Tessa with them. During a few minutes of inattention on the older girls’ part, the local drunk runs over Tessa and her bike with his massive tank of a car.

Tessa dies, and Uma blames her older daughter. So do the police, who decide—based on some dubious eyewitness testimony—to arrest Mac on drug charges. The only people who can vouch for Mac’s innocence choose self-protection rather than honesty, and Mac finds herself being sent to juvenile detention, where her already shattered life turns into a nightmare of terror and abuse.

Fortunately, Susan Wingate doesn’t leave us there but rather takes us through the worst of it and into the early stages of Mac’s road to redemption and healing. I recommend this to anyone who wants to be reminded of the possibility of hope after deep despair.

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Filed under Book Reviews, contemporary fiction

Sunday Review: Midnight at the Blackbird Cafe by Heather Webber

This novel is an enjoyable blend of Southern family saga meets magical realism. Anna Kate is a young woman on the verge of starting medical school, less because she wants to than because she promised her late mother Eden that she would take up the career her father never got to practice. A few months before med school is about to start, Anna Kate’s maternal grandmother Zee dies, leaving Anna Kate an estate with a catch.

Zee practiced folk medicine and ran the Blackbird Cafe in Wicklow, Alabama—a town that Eden left behind when her boyfriend was killed in an accident because his parents unjustly accused her of crashing the car on purpose in an attempted murder-suicide. Because of her mother’s painful feelings about the town, Anna Kate has never been there. Now Zee’s will has left the cafe to Anna Kate with the stipulation that she must run it for two months before she can inherit the property and sell it.

It doesn’t take Anna Kate long after arriving in Wicklow to learn that the Blackbird is no ordinary cafe. The pies sold there are said to have magical powers to bring those who are grieving messages from beyond the grave. Except that when Anna Kate bakes the pies, the messages don’t come. “The pies are broken.”

A whimsical yet poignant tale ensues that encompasses solving family mysteries, establishing bonds with estranged relatives, weighing the value of old promises, and possibly finding love. The novel is comforting and thought provoking at the same time. But be forewarned. It will give you a craving for pie, blackberry iced tea, and buttermilk fried chicken.

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Sunday Review: Painting the Light by Sally Cabot Gunning

I was first drawn to this historical novel because it’s about an artist. As it turns out, the subject of painting plays less of a role in the story than I’d hoped, but I still enjoyed it thoroughly.

Ida Russell has been battered by life’s storms. Before the story opens, every member of her family of origin has died from drowning: her father and two brothers by accident, her mother by suicide. Before these tragedies, Ida was a promising painter and art student in Boston. However, lonely and weighed down by grief, she decides after an all-too-brief courtship to marry Ezra Pease, a sheep farmer from Martha’s Vineyard.

After the marriage, Ida discovers to her chagrin that Ezra is a lazy farmer, an unkind husband who alternates between inattention and disparagement, and a habitual gambler who takes part in nightly poker games in town. The charm he displayed during their courtship has vanished, along with her family property, which he sold as soon as he had the legal right as her husband to do so. The running of the household and many of the duties of the farm fall to Ida, leaving her no time to paint. Two years into their marriage, Ezra and Ida are barely on speaking terms.

Ezra and a friend named Mose open a salvage company, and the work occasionally takes them away from home—absences that Ida relishes—but that business doesn’t prosper any more than the farm does. Shortly after the novel begins, Ezra and Mose leave for a salvage job in Rhode Island. While they are away, a terrible storm hits, and their company boat catches fire and sinks. A ship named the Portland traveling to Rhode Island also sinks with great loss of life. A few days afterward, Ida is stunned to receive a letter from Ezra written just before he and Mose were about to board the ill-fated vessel. Although their bodies never wash ashore, they are presumed dead because only a small portion of those lost in the Portland are ever recovered. Although Ida retains little love for her husband, losing another person to drowning feels like an unnecessarily cruel trick of fate.

As Ida sets to work trying to make sense of her husband’s assets, she encounters Mose’s brother, Henry Barstow, a man she’s met before and liked. They team up to settle the estate and see if anything remains for either of them to inherit. Ida’s financial situation is dire. Ezra’s lies and deceptions—and the destruction of the salvage boat—have left her with nothing to live on but the grudging support of her husband’s aunt. Complicating matters, Ida finds herself more and more attracted to Henry, who is married but also in a foundering relationship.

Ida makes many discoveries through the course of the story—about her husband, about secret schemes, and about the island residents it takes her so long to come to know. Most importantly, she learns to rely on herself and to feel confidence in her own opinions rather than society’s dictates. 

Highly recommended.

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Filed under 19th century life, American history, Book Reviews, Historical fiction

Sunday Review: The Sentence by Louise Erdrich

I read this book because a friend strongly recommended it on Facebook, and while I’m not sorry I did, I didn’t love it as much as she did nor as much as I hoped I would.

The main character is Tookie, an Ojibwe woman with a criminal past. She is convinced by a woman she loves to commit one crime, only to learn afterward that she has been set up to be guilty of an entirely different offense. The judge hands her an extremely harsh sentence, but after several years, her lawyer manages to get it reduced and Tookie is released. Her time in prison turned Tookie into a voracious reader, so she applies for a job at Louise Erdrich’s independent store Birchbark Books. This was the first thing that made it hard for me to connect to the story. To have Louise Erdrich write about herself as a minor character in her own novel felt too meta to me, and I didn’t enjoy the archness of it.

Tookie herself is a complex character, scarred but with the potential for warmth and growth. She turns out to be a great bookseller. Because of the wide and eclectic reading experience she gained in prison and has continued on the outside, she is often able to help customers find books they will love. Her most annoying regular customer is a woman named Flora, who does a great many charitable deeds but also insists without any concrete evidence that she too has Native ancestry. Flora dies on All Souls Day, 2019, but she refuses to rest in peace. Instead, she haunts the bookstore by returning every day at her normal time and moving to all her favorite spots within the building. In particular, Flora is drawn to Tookie, and one of the essential questions of the novel is why.

As the weeks pass, Flora persists and Tookie becomes more and more desperate to figure out how to persuade her to leave. The year draws to a close, and as it does, we as readers know something the characters do not: COVID-19 is coming, and their lives will be forever changed. Not only COVID, but this is Minneapolis, so the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent unrest will become part of the storyline too.

And here is where I experienced my other big disconnect from the story. I expected these two catastrophes to stir me deeply, but they did not. I don’t know if the problem is that I’m still too numb (I lost a dearly loved brother to COVID) or if Louise Erdrich didn’t have enough distance from the events to be able to write about them with power and insight. Either is possible—or both in tandem.

All I know is that the book did not move me in the way I’d hoped. Reactions to fiction are subjective—as an author myself, I know that well—so I don’t offer this as a definitive response to The Sentence. If the premise of the book intrigues you, I recommend that you give it a try and decide for yourself.

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Sunday Review: Billy Summers by Stephen King

I don’t read horror fiction, so I’ve never read much by Stephen King. A few years ago, however, I listened to 11/22/63 and really loved it. So when I saw the promotions for Billy Summers. I was intrigued.

Billy Summers is a hit man with an unusual past; his first murder was in response to abuse, and later he served as a sniper in Iraq, which gave him professional training. To reconcile his conscience with what he does for a living, Billy reassures himself that he kills only “bad people.” 

Now in his mid-forties, Billy has had enough and wants to retire. He decides to take one last job—even though he knows from movies and novels that the “one last job” always turns out to be a disaster. His anonymous client is offering a fortune, large enough for him to quit forever, and the temptation is impossible to resist.

The catch is that Billy needs to hole up in a small town for weeks or perhaps months waiting for his target to be extradited from California. He’s going to take the shot from an office building near the courthouse, and his cover for being there is that he’s a writer who needs to be on his own and away from temptation to finish the book he’s promised his publisher. To pass the endless hours, he actually does begin to write his memoir and finds the process of telling his story both addictive and therapeutic. This book within a book is just as engaging as the story that frames it.

However, Billy’s self-protective hackles soon rise as he senses that the job isn’t quite what it seems. The man who’s renting him the office space and supplying the weapon is tense and scared, and Billy deduces that the poor guy is the weak link in the chain and being set up as a patsy. Then, when Billy hears the arrangements that have been made for his own getaway, he suspects that the plans involve putting him six feet under rather spiriting him six hundred miles north. So he goes rogue and puts together his own fake id and method of extricating himself from the crime scene.

More complications arise in the form of an unexpected and unwise relationship with a victimized young woman and an investigation by Billy and his manager into the shadowy figure behind the Byzantine assassination scheme. The reader is left racing through pages to find out if Billy will indeed pull himself out of his underworld life and make it to happily ever after.

4 stars of 5

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Sunday Review: The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

I have mixed feelings about this novel. On the one hand, I recognize its brilliance. On the other, I developed no emotional connection to it or to the characters.

The plot is deceptively simple. The narrator, Stevens, has been the butler at Darlington Hall for decades. Most of that time, he served Lord Darlington; now in the mid-1950s, he works for an American and has a tiny staff compared to the house’s past glory days.

Stevens is the son of a butler and has given years of thought to what constitutes a “great” butler; he concludes that what defines a butler at the top of his profession is not a polished manner or administrative tricks to ease the running of a great house. No, the important quality is dignity: the ability to serve with efficiency, aplomb, and a reserved demeanor even in a crisis and, above all, never reveal when one is dealing with personal difficulties of a physical or emotional nature.

The novel opens in 1956 with Stevens’s current employer offering to let him take time off for a brief vacation: a road trip through the West Country of England. Stevens hesitates at first—he is not accustomed to taking a holiday or indeed doing anything for his own pleasure—but then he justifies the excursion by deciding to visit a former housekeeper with whom he worked for many years. Lately certain inefficiencies and mistakes have crept into the running of the house, and Stevens has decided that augmenting the staff is the answer to the problem. The former housekeeper’s correspondence has led him to think that she is unhappy in her marriage and perhaps has brought it to an end. Therefore, he convinces himself that she would welcome an invitation to resume her old position, and satisfied by that rationalization, he sets off on his trip.

During the several days of motoring, Stevens reviews his past career. In this novel, Ishiguro uses a similar device as in the recent Klara and the Sun: an unreliable and somewhat clueless narrator. Slowly over the course of Stevens’s reminiscences, the reader becomes aware that the true story of the events he recalls, the character of his former employer, and Stevens’s relationship with the housekeeper are somewhat different than Stevens has permitted himself to admit. The message of this story can be found only by reading between the lines.

Which brings me to my ambivalence. I’m not the type of reader who is satisfied by wholly cerebral books. For me, reading should be more than an intellectual exercise. To love a book deeply, I must love the characters. I don’t mind if they are flawed. I do mind if I find them inaccessible. Throughout this novel, I always felt removed from Stevens. And for that reason alone, I consider it a 4-star rather than a 5-star read.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Historical fiction

Sunday Review: The Secret Keeper of Jaipur by Alka Joshi

I really enjoy well-written Indian novels. The country is so vast with an ancient history and a wide diversity of regions and peoples. A few years ago, I read and loved Alka Joshi’s first novel, The Henna Artist, the story of Lakshmi, a determined woman who fled a bad marriage and found a way to use her knowledge of herbal remedies and the art of henna painting to support herself, a servant boy named Malik, and the sister who showed up unexpectedly on her doorstep. (The premise grabbed my interest right away because when I was in my late twenties, I attended the wedding of a beloved Afghan friend and got to experience having my hand painted with henna before the ceremony.)

This week, I read The Secret Keeper of Jaipur, which is a sequel to the first novel. Set 12 years after The Henna Artist, it focuses on Lakshmi and most especially Malik. The novel grabs the reader’s attention right away; 20-year-old Malik is in Jaipur learning the construction business from the renowned Singh-Sharma Construction Company, which has been building a world-class cinema for the Maharani Latika of Jaipur. At the grand opening, a disaster occurs when the balcony collapses, killing several people.

The novel then backtracks two months to allow readers both to catch their breath and to catch up with what’s happened to Malik, Lakshmi, and her sister Radha in the intervening years. Malik is now in love with a young woman who is every bit as strong, self-sufficient, and determined as Lakshmi. She’s also a recent widow who comes from a tribe of nomadic hill people, and she has two young children. Lakshmi is not at all sure this is the right partner for her protegé.

Then there is the mystery of why the building collapses. Inquisitive, streetwise Malik is the only person who doubts the official explanation, and he may be the only one who can save family friend Manu Agarwal from unjustly taking the blame for shoddy workmanship.

I recommend the book highly, as I do its prequel. It isn’t absolutely necessary to read the two in order, although the second book does contain some spoilers for the first. (P.S. Isn’t the cover absolutely gorgeous?)

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Filed under Book Reviews, fiction, Historical fiction, Indian fiction

Sunday Review: The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach

I’ve been interested in this novel since it was published ten years ago but somehow never got around to reading it until now. 

The Art of Fielding is the name of both this novel and a book within the novel, a manual about how to be an excellent fielder written by the fictional Hall of Fame shortstop Aparicio Rodriguez. Snippets from this guide—which range from technical advice to Zenlike wisdom to a lover’s obsessive paeans—appear throughout the novel, particularly in the beginning. 

At first, it’s easy to assume that the story is primarily about Henry Scrimshander, who’s read the guide so often he can recite it. But Harbach doesn’t have such a narrow focus in mind. It quickly becomes apparent that there are five equally important protagonists to this story:

  • Henry Scrimshander, a teenaged baseball phenom reminiscent of The Natural’s Roy Hobbs
  • Mike Schwartz, the college sophomore catcher who spots Henry’s talent and recruits him for the Westish College team of which Mike is the driving force
  • Owen Dunn, Henry’s college roommate, a scholarly, gay, biracial student with a normally unflappable personality
  • Gwert Affenlight, the handsome charming president of Westish College, who used his own obsession with Herman Melville to reshape the college identity
  • Pella Affenlight, Gwert’s brilliant but rebellious daughter who dropped out of high school to marry a forty-something architect, a relationship that sent her into deep depression and eventually back home

Like The Natural, this is a baseball story that’s about much more than our national sport. These five people are on a collision course that leads to unexpected romantic pairings and re-pairings. More importantly, several of them confront personal crises that force them to reevaluate what they really want. The themes of obsession, self-destruction, self-knowledge, personal responsibility, and the possibility of redemption are integrated throughout the story. 

I thoroughly enjoyed it and only wish I hadn’t waited so long. 

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New Review of Katie, Bar the Door

The following review by senior reviewer Diane Donovan just appeared in the November issue of MBR Bookwatch:

It’s rare that the title of a book proves original and compelling in and of itself, but Katie, Bar the Door is such a creation. It will appeal to readers of modern women’s fiction with its astute story of Katie Thompson, a first-person story which captives not only by its title, but in its first few lines: “I felt as though I were being driven to a sentencing, not my wedding.”

Katie harbors big dreams for her future which do not embrace the conventional paths others around her believe she should follow.

In the opening lines of her story, she and Ritchie have eloped, and are to be married without benefit of ceremony. The couple has known each other since childhood. Forbidden from embarking on this relationship by a strict mother who caught them necking, Katie’s taken the step into sexuality, and is the driving force behind insisting that they now marry.

The reason, however, isn’t for love. It’s because of lack of options: “Even if I got to a phone and reached my mother, I wasn’t sure she’d take me back. She had forbidden my relationship with Ritchie over a year ago after she caught us necking and told me that, in God’s eyes, I was as guilty as if I’d slept with him. Defying her low opinion of me, I had clung stubbornly to my virginity until we ran away, surrendering it then only because of the promise that I’d be Mrs. Richard Pelletier in the morning – and because Ritchie’s rage at being asked to wait one more day was too menacing to defy. Now that the deed was done, according to the stringent doctrines of my mother and my church, my only chance to redeem myself was to marry the partner of my lust.”

As Katie faces domestic violence, being a runaway from her family and faith, and reviews dead-end roads and future options, readers journey alongside her as she faces a series of men who become bosses, lovers, and potential protectors, unified in their desire to control her in some way.

Even her professor, Dr. Peter Taylor, becomes entangled in Katie’s life and dreams as she moves from a history student in his class to something more.

Katie rewrote a history paper when she realized that her facts and sources were outdated. Can she rewrite her life?

Ruth Hull Chatlien crafts a vivid story of abuse, growth, repression, and changing perceptions and attitudes as she documents a young woman’s journey to self-empowerment and self-realization.

As the story moves full circle to embrace the relationships between mother and daughter and generations of belief, readers receive an engrossing examination of how past memories and experiences transform into future changes and new possibilities.

Katie, Bar the Door takes no simple paths in exploring these revelations. It provides many twists and surprises that will delight readers interested in a moving story of a young woman’s dreams, misconceptions, and growth. It will appeal to those interested in emotional trauma, recovery, and transformation, as well as in evocative women’s fictional writings.

You can order it here.

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