Superior Reads

A PLACE FOR READERS AND WRITERS

THE FOUR WINDS by Kristin Hannah is the story of one family’s desperate attempt to survive the Dust Bowl in the midst of overwhelming odds.  

Elsa Martinelli has not had an easy life – rejected as a child, and later as an adult, she finds solace and acceptance from Rosa and Tony Martinelli, her husband Rafe’s parents. As the Depression leads into the Dust Bowl of the 1930’s, Elsa, Rosa, and Tony fight to save the family farm in the Texas panhandle, while Rafe, a dreamer, has little to contribute other than fathering their two children, a daughter Loreda and a son Anthony (Ant).

After Ant contracts dust pneumonia, Elsa packs up the pickup truck with their meager belongings and heads to California with Loreda (now a rebellious teen) and Ant (seven, and cloyingly sweet), accompanied by hundreds of thousands of other migrants. At first, Elsa and the children are buoyed by the hopes of a fresh start but they are soon confronted with prejudice, cruelty, and untenable living conditions. Elsa and the children are forced to settle in a migrant tent camp and spend long hours in the fields picking cotton.

It’s hard to write about the Dust Bowl without tipping over into melodrama, and at times it felt as if the only thing moving the story forward was the next disaster. The relationships between the women in THE FOUR WINDS kept me invested. Elsa is a bit of a sad-sack, but her daughter Loreda is fierce and as she ages, she challenges Elsa to overcome her fears. Elsa’s friendship with Jean, another mother in the camp, felt authentic. Jean teaches Elsa the ropes – instructing her to apply for relief upon her arrival (though it will be a year before she qualifies for any assistance), and advising her about the best paid jobs. When Jean goes into labor with her last child, it is Elsa who drives her to the hospital – and back to the camp when they refuse to admit her, where her baby dies in Elsa’s arms.  Like the dust of the plains, there seems no end to the heartache these women must endure. Poverty, hunger, prejudice, and disease plague the migrants, and just when you think it can’t get worse, it does.

Elsa’s story is a painful one, but she shares something in common with many women: she wants nothing more than a better future for her children, a livable wage, and a safe place to live. Fans of historical fiction and of Kristin Hannah’s other formidable female characters will most likely not be disappointed.

This is Lin Salisbury with Superior Reviews.

What would you exchange for immortality? Family, friends, home? In THE INVISIBLE LIFE OF ADDIE LARUE by V.E. Schwab, twenty-three-year-old Adeline (Addie) LaRue does not consciously exchange these things for immortality, but desiring autonomy, she inadvertently makes a deal with the devil – exchanging her soul (when she’s done with it) for a life free of the restrictions placed on women in the early part of the eighteenth century. In a small village in the French countryside in the year 1714, Adeline lives as an only child with her mother and father. Her father has indulged her whimsy far longer than most girls her age and by the age of twenty-three, she is still unmarried when her parents bequeath her to a widower with children. Desperate to escape what she sees as a life of servitude, Adeline runs away the night before her wedding and in the forest, encounters a dark force, Luc, who allows her to exchange her soul for the life she desires. But freedom is never free, and Adeline soon discovers that the cost of immortality is a life of loneliness. No one will ever remember her – even five minutes after meeting her, if she walks out of a room and re-enters, it will be as if she had never been there. She will never know the intimacy of a lover or friend with whom she shares a history. For three hundred years, Addie traverses continents, passing through history virtually unknown. Until Henry.

In New York in the year 2014, Addie walks into a bookstore and walks out with a book – it’s a survival tactic that has served her for three hundred years – if no one remembers you, and you don’t have a home or a way to make a living, stealing eventually becomes essential. The second time she comes to the bookstore, Henry, a clerk at the store, remembers her, remembers her as the girl who stole a book from him the day before. Addie is astounded. He remembers her. And thus begins their love affair.

Relationships are complicated, but especially for Addie LaRue. Over the course of three hundred years, her relationship with Luc vacillates between fear, hate, and a sort of unhealthy dependence that could easily be confused for love. Never mind that Addie only sees Luc when he deigns to grace her with his presence – more often to goad her into surrendering her soul – but as time goes on, it sometimes resembles courtship. In this fiction, Schwab has perfectly encapsulated the tactics of an abusive partner. Henry, a young man with a sad history of his own, is a tender and attentive lover, and in him, Addie finds the security and intimacy she traded for her independence that dark night in the forest centuries before.

Schwab’s premise is clever, her main characters (Addie, Henry, and Luc) are compelling and nuanced, and the ending, not always the case with a sweeping 400-page fantasy, is true to her characters. Although, I must admit that fantasy is not my preference, I found THE INVISIBLE LIFE OF ADDIE LARUE to be an intriguing read. I cared about Addie and Henry and I wanted things to end well for them, and I wanted Luc to get his due. Schwab’s writing is inclusive – there are POC and LGBTQ characters and relationships – and stylistically, she makes some interesting choices.

One of the things I struggled with was the pacing; at times, the narrative dragged. And, because Addie never enjoys real intimacy in most of her relationships, some of the characters lacked depth; they read like character sketches and weren’t fully formed within the pages of the story. I would have liked to see more of Addie in the key historical moments the author only touches on – the French Revolution and World War II for instance. Instead of focusing so entirely on Addie’s love life, a plot that wends her through America’s turbulent 60’s or the Velvet Revolution or any number of culturally significant moments in history would have been more interesting to me.

THE INVISIBLE LIFE OF ADDIE LARUE was released in October of 2020 to mostly stellar reviews and despite my reservations, I would recommend it for fans of LIFE AFTER LIFE and THE TIME TRAVELERS WIFE.

This is Lin Salisbury with Superior Reviews.

Carl Hiaasen is the author of fourteen adult novels and six children’s novels – many of them bestsellers. He’s been called irreverent, original, offbeat, and a master of the comic crime novel. SQUEEZE ME, his most recent novel, came out in August 2020 and it is a superb political satire set in a post-pandemic Florida where the fictional President has a Winter White House called Casa Bellicosa.

During the height of the charity ball season, a prominent socialite, Kiki Pew Fitzsimmons, disappears during a fundraiser for Irritable Bowel Syndrome. She was a huge fan of the President and a founding member of the Potussies, a group of wealthy older women dedicated to supporting their President.

The club manager is on edge after Kiki’s disappearance and wants to quell the influx of huge pythons on the property of the posh club just as his high season is beginning. Enter Angie Armstrong, a former wildlife officer cum wildlife wrangler, independent proprietor of a business called Discreet Captures. She suspects that a large python with a bloated belly may have something to do with Kiki’s disappearance and beheads it, taking away the carcass to send it into a lab for analysis. But  before she can send it off, the snake’s body is stolen from her freezer.

Never one to miss an opportunity to play to his base, the President declares that Kiki has been the victim of an illegal immigrant crossing into the United States – Diego Beltran. During the Commander’s Ball, his large fundraising event, the President whips the crowd into a fury – shouting, “No more Diegos! Come on, let me hear you send that message loud and clear: NO MORE DIEGOS!” Afterwards, the Potussies serenade him with a song they’ve penned in his honor, “Big, Unimpeachable You.”

Carl Hiaasen has a long career as a journalist and his fiction has often reflected his concern about climate change and invasive species in Florida, but he coats his commentary with a huge dusting of comedy. Hiaasen’s books seem to pick the easy targets – cultural and social commentary on the outrageous extravagances of the twenty first century – whether that be reality television, politics, or overdevelopment and its impact on our environment – it is a truth to be acknowledged that you can’t make this stuff up. But yet, Hiaasen does. Mocking cultural icons and putting an air hose to the absurd— the President has a tanning bed tester instead of a taste tester, for example – Hiaasen knows how to make us laugh, so that we won’t cry.

SQUEEZE ME is a gut-buster, though if at times it feels a little too close to the truth, just keep reminding yourself that it’s only fiction and enjoy the ride.

I recommend SQUEEZE ME for fans of Christopher Moore, Tim Dorsey, and Randy Wayne White.

This is Lin Salisbury with Superior Reviews.

THE GREAT CIRCLE by Maggie Shipstead opens with the rescue of twins from a sinking ocean liner in 1909; Marian and Jamie Graves are rescued by their father, but their mother perishes. Soon after, they are sent to live with their indifferent uncle Warren, a man who had at one time been a promising artist but shows a greater commitment to gambling and drink than to his work or his obligations. The twins are left to themselves most of the time – their uncle releasing them “into the wilderness like a pair of dogs trusted to return eventually.”  Jamie, like his uncle, is a gifted artist. When Marian encounters the Flying Brayfogles, two barnstormers from a defunct Flying Circus, she becomes fixated on learning to fly.

 “She was at an age when the future adult rattles the child’s bones like the bars of a cage.”

Marian is driven to find a way to pay for flying lessons. At fourteen, she runs moonshine for a local bootlegger, driving a truck advertising Stanley’s Bread and Cake. She cuts her hair short and is often mistaken for a boy, much to Jamie’s chagrin. One of her deliveries is to the local brothel, where the ladies dress her up and put makeup on her. It’s there that she meets Barclay McQueen, a rancher in theory, but a racketeer at heart. Barclay McQueen becomes obsessed with Marian and offers to pay for her flying lessons and a loaned airplane; Marian accepts but knows that there will be a price to pay for his generosity. Marian wants nothing more than to be the first woman to fly the Great Circle from pole to pole, and she will do almost anything to achieve her goal.

The stories of Marian and Jamie are juxtaposed against the story of a current day actress, Hadley Jones, whose career is on the shoals after her latest scandalous affair. She has the opportunity to redeem herself with the role of a lifetime – playing Marian Graves, the first woman to attempt the Great Circle, who supposedly crashed into the sea, never to be found.

THE GREAT CIRCLE is a sweep of a novel – soaring with the ambitious tenacity of young Marian Graves, yet tender as her artistic brother, Jamie, who though he cannot harm animal nor man, is recruited to document World War II through drawings that capture time and space in a way that few other artists are capable of.

I was captivated by the stories of Marian and Jamie, and initially, a little less with Hadley’s story, until the unfolding drama of the movie production reveals greater truths about the lives of the twins.

THE GREAT CIRCLE is a big book – not just because it is nearly 600 pages long – but because of the breadth of the subject matter – art, aviation, prohibition, noncomformity, war, isolation, connection – and the period it spans 1909-2014 – give or take a few decade gaps. There will be So. Much. To. Discuss. with your book group! Maggie Shipstead has a keen understanding of longing and what it means to be human.

I recommend THE GREAT CIRCLE for fans of Beryl Markham’s WEST WITH THE NIGHT, Isak Dinason’s  OUT OF AFRICA, and Paula McLain’s CIRCLING THE SUN.

THE GREAT CIRCLE by Maggie Shipstead will be available May 4, but pre-order it today so that it will arrive in your mailbox that day – it’s that good.

Listen to my interview with Maggie Shipstead on Superior Reads on June 24 at 7:00 pm. This is Lin Salibury with Superior Reviews.

Brit Bennett’s novel, The Vanishing Half tells the story of twin girls, Stella and Desiree, who grow up in the fictional town of Mallard, Louisiana – a town that prides itself on the lightness of their black residents’ skin. The girls have a rough start; after their father is lynched, their mother takes in the laundry of white folks living nearby, but the girls have other ambitions. Stella has an aptitude for math and sees college as her way out of Mallard. Desiree dreams of becoming an actress and tries to talk Stella into running away. When the girls finish eighth grade, their mother decides they’ve had enough schooling and gets them jobs as housekeepers for wealthy white families. Desiree is the dreamer; Stella is the practical twin. She initially resists Desiree’s runaway dream, but after she’s assaulted by the man she’s working for, she’s ready to leave Mallard behind forever. Desiree and Stella leave in the middle of the night and depend on the kindness of friends until they can get their own small apartment. Work is hard to come by and money is tight. Stella applies for a job as a secretary and realizes that as black woman, she likely won’t get the job, so she makes a decision that will alter the course of her life and the lives of her family. She passes as white and gets the job, eventually leaving Desiree behind to start a new life as a white woman married to her white boss. Stella and her husband move to Los Angeles and have a child, Kennedy, and live a privileged life in a wealthy gated community. Desiree is devastated. She has no idea where Stella is and why she’s left. Desiree marries a black man as dark as she can find and has a child, Jude. After a brutal beating, with bruises on her neck, Desiree leaves him and returns to Mallard. Desiree returns to her roots, caretaking her mother in her old age.

The novel spans twenty years and the repercussions of Stella’s decision vibrate over two generations. The twin’s daughters, Jude and Kennedy in some ways reflect the opposite twin mother. Stella’s daughter, Kennedy is an actress, blond and blue eyed and Desiree’s daughter, Jude, smart and a gifted athlete, but so dark she’s shunned growing up in Mallard, gets a college scholarship. Jude’s boyfriend Reese is transitioning from female to male and Kennedy finds it difficult to stay in a relationship longer than a season. The girls would never be mistaken for cousins.

But secrets have a way of working their way to the surface.

The choices Stella and Desiree make, and the outcomes of those choices, reveal the ugly inventions of race and sex and class in America. Hobbled by those definitions, Bennett’s characters push and pull against them.  Stella sacrifices family and true connection for a false identity. Desiree surrenders to her identity and sacrifices her dreams.  

The Vanishing Half is a novel about identity and self-acceptance. It’s a novel about learning to love who we are and not weighting the value and judgments of others.  The Vanishing Half addresses the harsh realities of living as other in America, the consequences of colorism, and price of generational trauma.

Britt Bennett moves things along through flashbacks and jumps in time, but her characters stay true to her original intentions and she has a keen sense of how trauma effects subsequent generations. Her characters are complex and her plot as it pushes forward through time, makes for interesting book club conversations about individual choices that reverberate throughout generations. It’s easy to judge other people’s motivations, but Bennett is fair, she weights the options each of her characters are presented with, and I found myself sympathizing with both twins.

I recommend The Vanishing Half for fans of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye and Philip Roth’s The Human Stain.

This is Lin Salisbury with Superior Reviews.

“Between life and death there is a library,” she said. “And within that library, the shelves go on for ever. Every book provides a chance to try another life you could have lived. To see how things would be if you had made other choices … would you have done anything different, if you had the chance to undo your regrets?”

So begins Matt Haig’s THE MIDNIGHT LIBRARY, a provocative meditation on regret, failure, and the parallel lives of thirty-five year old protagonist, Nora Seed. Nora has recently been fired from her job and her cat Voltaire has died; she has had every opportunity to make something of herself, but has failed to develop the raw talent she’d been gifted. There were many things she could have been: an Olympic swimmer, a musician, a glaciologist, a writer, a philosopher, a wife, a mother – the possibilities were limitless, and she squandered them all.  Nora decides that the best outcome is to retreat from the world – physically – and she takes an overdose of her antidepressant medication. When she wakes up, she’s somewhere between life and death in The Midnight Library. The librarian, Mrs. Elm, is one of the rare trusted adults from her childhood. In the library, she learns, there are thousands and thousands of books – all of them portals to all the lives she could be living. Pull a volume off the shelf and try on the world famous rock star life, or the glaciologist, the Olympian, the pub owner, or any number of lives being lived in any number of parallel universes. It’s a fascinating premise, an option that many of us would adventure to take, given the right opportunity. And that’s what makes THE MIDNIGHT LIBRARY so much fun. All the what ifs answered.

Mrs. Elm also introduces Nora to a much larger, heavier volume – the Book of Regrets – and she begins to read. In this volume the what ifs are agonizing – the weight of guilt and sorrow and remorse like a noose around her neck. “Close it. You have to do it yourself,” Mrs. Elm advises Nora. Nora questions the point of it – and Mrs. Elm tells her that if she really wants to live one of the lives in the library, she will stay there as if she has always been there. Quoting Thoreau, Mrs. Elm reminds Nora, a philosophy major, “It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.” And truly, Nora finds that when you change your perception, you change your reality. It’s easy to mourn the lives we aren’t living, Nora realizes, near the end of the book . . . but it’s not the lives we’re not living  that are the problem, it’s the regret itself. The most radical change in Nora’s life happened not inside of another life, but inside of her.

The MIDNIGHT LIBRARY is imaginative, thought-provoking, and fun . . . it’s just what I needed to read during the polar vortex, a big-hearted read that gave me a fresh perspective on all the roads not taken.

This is Lin Salisbury with Superior Reviews.

Set in 1931, Kathleen McMorris’s SOLD ON A MONDAY is based upon an actual photo from the depression era that swept the nation, capturing the agonizing desperation of families struggling to find jobs and provide food and shelter for their children.

When Ellis Reed, a middling newspaper reporter assigned to the Society Page, sees two children on a road with a sign that reads: Children for Sale, he snaps a photo and it leads to his big break. When the photo is ruined, Ellis attempts to recreate it. Returning to the home of the first family, he finds that they have moved, but a single mother and her young daughter and son live there and Ellis pays the mother to allow her children to pose with the sign. Instead of launching Ellis’s career, the story ends up launching him into a desperate search for two innocent children caught up in his failed attempt to make a name for himself. Lillian, a secretary at the paper with a secret of her own, has dreams of becoming a reporter like Nellie Bly, but her boss is none too eager to give her an opportunity to prove herself. Ellis and Lilly team up to find the missing children – motivated by their own family histories to right a wrong.

McMorris’s novel flags at times, and some of the backstory feels unrealistic, but as the reporters close in on a dark underworld of mobsters, unscrupulous children’s homes, and characters broken by loss, the novel becomes compulsively readable. You’ll find yourself flying through the last third of the book, as desperate as Lilly and Ellis to find the lost children. Though the novel lacks the depth of other books on the era and at times tips into resolutions that border on magical thinking, the welfare of the children kept me reading till the end.

Let me know what you think of SOLD ON A MONDAY and if you’re looking for other recommended reads from the era, check out Christina Baker Kline’s ORPHAN TRAIN, Pam Jenoff’s THE ORPHAN’S TALE, and Lisa Wingate’s BEFORE WE WERE YOURS.

This is Lin Salisbury with Superior Reviews.

Moving between Germany on the eve of World War II and present-day Milwaukee, Lauren Fox writes a love story to her family in SEND FOR ME, a story loosely based on her own family history. As a young graduate student, Fox found a wooden box of treasured letters written to her grandmother in Wisconsin from her great grandmother in Germany, dating from 1938 to 1941. It would take years before Fox found the voice to tell this story, but how lucky we are that she did.

Annelise works at her parents’ bakery in Feldenheim, Germany. It’s a popular bakery until the insidious rise of anti-Semitism gradually destroys their business and their friendships. Annelise falls in love with Walter, a shoe salesman, and they have a child together, Ruth. Soon, friends dissociate from them and Jews are restricted in their daily activities. Faithful customers stop coming to the bakery. There are rumors of impending danger, but Annelise and her family can’t believe that things won’t soon settle down to normal. When a brick is thrown through Annelise and Walter’s window and an old friend stops by with a dire warning, Walter and Annelise take Ruth and emigrate to America, leaving her parents behind.

Two generations later, Annelise’s granddaughter, Clare, is newly in love with a journalist from England in America on a one-year assignment. Back home, he has a young son.  When Claire finds the treasured letters and the grief that infuses them, she is torn between loyalty to family and love. Her own mother, Ruth, broke off an engagement that would have required her moving to Baltimore, away from her mother Annelise and father Walter. A family history of loss and leaving hobbled Ruth, and now Clare must choose as well.

In her author’s note, Fox says that her great-grandmother’s letters felt like an introduction, “her cadences were familiar, her fear-soaked love the source of the same concoction that was handed down to me . . . not a coherent story . . . more like a song, a howl of grief.”

Powerfully conveyed through shifting narratives, SEND FOR ME is not a lament, but rather an ode to family and a love that transcends time and place. I recommend SEND FOR ME for fans of Kristin Hannah and Geraldine Brooks. Listen to my interview with Lauren Fox on Superior Reads, May 27 at 7:00 pm. on WTIP Radio, 90.7 Grand Marais, or stream it live from the web, http://www.wtip.org.

This is Lin Salisbury with Superior Reviews.

Katherine Heiny’s EARLY MORNING RISER was a great way to kick off 2021 – funny, smart, insightful, with dazzling dialogue and keen wit, Heiny has brought us another deep dive into what makes us loveably human.

Jane moves to Boynton City, Michigan to take a job as a second grade teacher. There, she falls in love with Duncan. Duncan has been well-loved; he’s slept with most of the women in Boynton City and though the relationships may have been short, they have an afterlife that sticks with Jane. She wonders if she will ever truly have Duncan to herself. Duncan’s ex-wife Aggie is ever-ready with advice and recipes, and shows up at every event looking as if she’d just had her hair coiffed and her dresses ironed. Duncan still mows her lawn even though Aggie has remarried. On top of that, Duncan’s affable coworker Jimmy, a lovable yet vulnerable man, shows up at the most awkward moments at Duncan’s apartment. After a devastating accident, Jane’s life is inextricably bound to Duncan, Jimmy, and Aggie. Through these relationships, though challenging each in their own way, Jane is pressed to discover the true meaning of family and love and living fully.

I cannot recommend EARLY MORNING RISER enough. EARLY MORNING RISER brims with love and hope and humor. Heiny redefines family in this enchanting novel and I felt my heart lifted from the heaviness of the past year. Her characters are complex and quirky – they’re your mother, your brother, or your neighbor – they are just like all those complicated people you encounter on a daily basis. Whether you live in a small town, or your village of people is in a big city, you’ll recognize them and after reading EARLY MORNING RISER, you’ll find the things that may have previously annoyed you, endearing. Heiny is like that – through her lens, you’ll see things differently.

I recommend EARLY MORING RISER for fans of Ann Tyler and Elizabeth Strout. Run, don’t walk to your favorite bookstore and preorder this radiant gem which will be available in April from Knopf Publishing.

This is Lin Salisbury with Superior Reviews.

Over the course of one year, the nameless narrator in BROOD by Jackie Polzin cycles through grief as she cares for her four chickens: Gloria, Gam Gam, Miss Hennepin County, and Darkness. The challenges are daunting – brutal cold, scorching heat, determined predators, and an indiscriminate tornado. In the end she is no more able to save her brood than she was the child that she miscarried. She questions her relevance. She contemplates motherhood –she thinks she would have been a good mother and has trouble letting go of the possibility. Yet at the same time, she cannot bear the thought that other people might see her as someone who did not want children. She wanted them. And she believed she would have been a good one.

When confronting a racoon in the coop in the middle of the night, she comes alive, all her fierce instincts igniting a switch buried somewhere in the center of her grief. She swings a rake and growls at the racoon:
“I was not one bit afraid, or my fear was unrecognizable as such, pulsing like a thing outside me in the warm dark night. The air sparked with possibility. What would I do next? I rather hoped it would involve a feat of superhuman strength.”

BROOD is not a plot driven read, it is not really even about raising chickens or children. It is quietly reflective, a time capsule of a story about a woman coming to terms with childlessness.

BROOD brims with hope in the midst of grief and tenderness in spite of loss. “Life is the ongoing effort to live,” Polzin writes, “some people make it look easy. Chickens do not.” BROOD is an honest look at life, love, loss, and to some extent, chickens.

I recommend BROOD for fans of Ann Tyler, Fredrik Backman, and Elizabeth Strout. BROOD will be released on March 9 and is available for preorder from your favorite bookseller. Listen to my interview with Jackie Polzin on March 25 at 7:00 pm on Superior Reads.

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