Superior Reads

A PLACE FOR READERS AND WRITERS

Set in 1964, Chris Bojahlian’s newest novel, The Lioness tells the story of A-list actress Katie Barstow and her entourage as they travel to the Serengeti after her recent marriage to David Hill. Katie generously pays the way for several of their friends, her brother and his wife, her agent, and publicist following her wedding. The group envisions a civilized adventure – spending their days taking photos of giraffes and zebras and elephants, and their evenings drinking gin and tonics with fresh ice from a kerosene-powered ice maker, while their Tanzanian guides warm water for their baths.

What they do not expect is what ensues – a violent kidnapping gone wrong, their guides murdered, and a team of Russian mercenaries holding guns to their heads and spitting the group up among several Land Rovers.

What follows is a mystery of sorts, an action adventure film spooling out on the page, as Bohjalian runs us through the possible scenarios for who is responsible and why this group of Hollywood lions is being held in huts across the Serengeti.

Recently, I’ve found myself on the road quite a bit so I listened to The Lioness on audiobook. It was a compelling listen. I enjoyed the three narrators – one a Hollywood reporter covering the trip. The exotic setting, retro Hollywood era, and the pacing made my road trip fly by.

This is Lin Salisbury with Superior Reviews. Listen to my author interviews on the fourth Thursday of the month at 7:00 pm and the following Saturday at 6:00 am.

Whether Dani Shapiro is writing fiction or memoir, her writing is always reflective and wise. Signal Fires, her first novel in fifteen years, follows on the heels of her poignant memoir Inheritance, and, like that memoir, examines the complexities of family relationships and the secrets that bind them together and tear them apart.

Signal Fires opens in the Summer of 1985 with three teenagers. They are drinking … and driving. Before the night is over, one of the teenagers will be dead. The other two, siblings Sarah and Theo, will be trapped in a lie for the next three decades, and their father, Dr. Benjamin Wilf, the first to arrive on the scene, will be complicit. Like the car wrapped around the tree, their shame and guilt will bind them so tightly they will not be able to extricate themselves from it. The only way for each of them to survive is to remain silent about what happened that night in 1985.

The novel moves backward and forward in time … 1985, 1999, 2010, 2014, 2020, and finally back to 1970 when the Wilf family was just beginning, and everything was still possible. Time compresses and expands. The past is never too far away.

Sarah and Theo tentatively move forward with their lives. Theo becomes a renowned chef and Sarah becomes a successful Hollywood writer and producer. They put distance between themselves and their parents to distance themselves from the past. Sarah will push everyone away and layer over the lie with alcohol, drugs, and an affair … but none of it will work.

By the time the Shenkmans move in across the street, Dr. Wilf is retired. When Mrs. Shenkman goes into premature labor, Dr. Wilf delivers baby Waldo, whose cord is wrapped around his neck, and saves his life. When lonely ten-year-old Waldo befriends Dr. Wilf through a shared interest in astronomy, something his father eschews, they are both saved.

“It’s possible to grow up in the wrong house, on the wrong street, in the wrong town, in the wrong part of the country. It’s possible to go to the wrong school. To have the wrong dad. To be pushed to do the wrong things. But it is also possible to survive all these psychic indignities if you have one, maybe two people who recognize you for who you are,” Shapiro writes.

Sarah and Theo return home when their mother is in the final stages of Alzheimer’s and Shapiro weaves together all the threads of these tattered families. The novel is a poignant story about secrets and the desperate things that people do to keep them. Shapiro writes with heart and soul about our connections to people and to nature.

This is Lin Salisbury with Superior Reviews. Listen to my interview with Dani Shapiro on Superior Reads, November 24 at 7:00 pm and the 26th at 6:00 am on WTIP, 90.7 Grand Marais, or stream it from the web at www.wtip.org.

Some books are hard to define, and Firekeeper’s Daughter by Angeline Boulley is one of them – part thriller, mystery, love story, indigenous fiction, and cultural commentary, Firekeeper’s Daughter grabbed me by the throat and pulled me along at breakneck speed.

Daunis is stuck between cultures. Her father was an Ojibwe hockey player from Sugar Island whose career ended before it began after a tragic accident. Her mother is from one of Sault St. Marie’s most prominent families and her grandmother was less than thrilled by their relationship. Daunis herself was a high school hockey star, playing on the boy’s team. After graduation, she planned to go to Michigan State and pursue a medical career, but when her maternal grandmother suffered a stroke and lingered near death, Daunis decides to go to the local community college with her friend Lily. She isn’t heartbroken by the change of plans, after all, she’ll be able to hang out with her best friend – plus there’s a new hockey player in town, Jamie, who intrigues her. But as she gets to know Jamie, she begins to wonder if he is who he claims to be.

When several Anishinaabe teens have a hallucinogenic experience after taking meth, Daunis is recruited by the FBI. Daunis is smart, and with a foot in both the hockey world and the Anishinaabe community, she’s a useful tool for the FBI.

I listened to the audiobook version of Firekeeper’s Daughter and I’m so glad that I did. The cadence of the Anishinaabe elder’s speech, the pronunciation of many Anishinaabe words, and the propulsive action of the story made my time on the road fly by. I did not want the book to end. Boulley’s a master storyteller and she weaves in powerful cultural traditions and beliefs. I learned so much from this book – Boulley’s debut was billed as a young adult novel – but the breadth and depth of the novel make it a book for all ages.

Drury Lane Books, Cook County Library, and Cook County Higher Ed have partnered together to make Firekeeper’s Daughter the community read for September. There will be a potluck and discussion on September 29 at 5:30 pm at Cook County Higher Education. You still have time to read the book – or listen to the audiobook and join in the discussion.

This is Lin Salisbury with Superior Reviews. Listen to my author interviews on the fourth Thursday of every month at 7:00 pm.

When I think about people who have changed the course of history – scientists, world leaders, and politicians come to mind – not Sylvia Beach, the American bibliophile who opened Shakespeare and Company, the first English language bookstore in Paris. Beach opened her bookstore and lending library in 1919 and it quickly became the second home to many famous expatriates: Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, Gertrude Stein, and most importantly, James Joyce.

The Paris Bookseller by Kerri Maher is a novel about Beach’s famous bookstore and her impact on the book world as the first publisher of James Joyce’s Ulysses, which had been serialized in America and then banned. It was no small accomplishment – partly because Joyce was famously depressed, suffered from glaucoma and problematic relationships, and had to be cajoled into finishing it, but also because once published, she had to find a way to distribute it. Prohibition, book banning, and puritanical values pushed many artists to move abroad in the 1920’s, where they could enjoy the freedom to create and live as they wished. Beach was in good company. She spent countless dollars and hours publishing Ulysses, considered a masterpiece by many, famous for its stream-of-consciousness interior monologue.

The setting and the historical characters that populate The Paris Bookseller were a big draw for me. Add to that the story behind the publication of Ulysses by a woman-owned business and I’m a fan. There were moments at the beginning of the book where I felt that more editing would have been helpful – a little too much book title dropping to establish Beach’s credentials as a bibliophile and set the historical stage, felt forced, but once I got into the story of Beach’s incredible feat – a woman in the 1920s who took on a publishing world largely run by men – I was encouraged to read to the end.

Fans of Marie Benedict’s and Paula McLain’s historical fiction will enjoy Kerri Maher’s The Paris Bookseller.

This is Lin Salisbury with Superior Reviews. Listen to my author interviews on the fourth Thursday of every month on Superior Reads on WTIP Radio, 90.7 Grand Marais, or stream it from the web at www.wtip.org.

When the weekly letters from Jessie Nelson’s mom stop arriving from Afghanistan, she’s worried that something terrible has happened to her. A long, anxious summer stretched before Jessie made only worse when her dad announces that they would be spending the summer with her grandfather in St. Peter, Minnesota. So begins Kristin F. Johnson’s middle grade adventure novel, FEARLESS.

Though she’s numb with worry about her mother’s welfare, she proudly wears the T-shirt her mother gave her before she was deployed, the one emblazoned with the word FEARLESS, a reminder to her that being fearless doesn’t mean you’re never afraid. Fearless will become Jessie’s mantra that summer. She will make new friends and she will become a hero in her own right.

Riding their bikes around St. Peter with her new friends, Oscar and Nicky, the three stumble upon an old barn. Inside there are dogs in small cages, whimpering and whining, and obviously neglected. The barn is the home to a puppy mill and though the kids can’t release them all, Jessie takes one that is in particularly rough shape home with her. She names the dog Dusty and she keeps him under her bed, sneaking food to him each day and letting him out when her father and grandfather are away running errands or visiting friends.

As the story progresses, Jessie learns what true courage is, and she displays a fierce commitment to helping the dogs left behind in the puppy mill. Kids who love dogs and animal stories will love FEARLESS and be inspired by Jessie’s dedication to step outside of her own troubles to help someone else. Johnson has written an adventure story with depth and heart – not too sad, but just enough tension to keep your eight- to ten-year-old (boy or girl) reading.

This is Lin Salisbury with Superior Reviews. Listen to my author interviews on WTIP Radio 90.7 Grand Marais or stream them from the web at www.wtip.org the fourth Thursday of the month at 7:00 pm and the following Saturday morning at 6:00 am.

New York Times best-selling and Emmy Award-winning author Matt Goldman new stand-alone mystery, Carolina Moonset, examines family, memories, and long-held secrets. Like his other series, Gone to Dust featuring private detective Nils Shapiro, Carolina Moonset doesn’t waste time. At the onset, we’re introduced to protagonist Joey Green, who returns to North Carolina to care for his father, who suffers from dementia, so that his mother can have a break and participate in a weekend pickle ball tournament. Soon after his arrival, his father begins to recall long lost memories about a murdered friend – and suddenly, his father is implicated in a new murder and being questioned by the police.

Joey is a bit distracted by a matchmaking effort to hook him up with a family friend’s daughter. Joey and Leela embark on an experimental, prolonged date. Neither of them expects the date to last beyond their visit home. They live far apart and both have children. The complications are numerous.

Goldman writes a novel like he might write a script – the action is propulsive, the relationships explosive, and the complications add a twist to the story that you might not be expecting. Secrets have a way of resurfacing, relationships continue to evolve, and memory can be elusive. All these components coalesce into a mighty fine read.

Recommended for mystery Southern fiction fans intrigued by family and small town dynamics. Listen to my interview with Matt Goldman on August 25 at 7:00 pm on Superior Reads, WTIP Radio 90.7, or stream it from the web at wtip.org. 

Marie Myung-Ok Lee’s The Evening Hero is a kaleidoscopic look into the impact of war and displacement and the irony of the American medical system.

For fifty years, Dr. Yungman Kwak has reported for duty at Horse’s Breath Hospital to deliver the descendants of the immigrants brought to work in the iron ore mines – Swedes, Norwegians, Finns, Danes, and a handful of others. Though his name could be translated to “Evening Hero”, he was simply Dr. Kwak to his white patients, a small Korean man with a big heart, his empathy so keen that he often felt crampy as he told his patients to bear down.  As the novel opens, Dr. Kwak learns that Horse’s Breath Hospital is closing – SANUS, a company that purchased the hospital to save it from such a fate, has determined that it is no longer economically viable. Yungman, at eighty, is one of the few who will retain his pension. But he’s not quite ready to retire, so when his son, Einstein, a Harvard-trained doctor who works in a new start-up clinic (also owned by SANUS) in the Mall of America, encourages him to apply, Yungman does, and quickly discovers that he will not be delivering babies, but will be serving as a glorified aesthetician – lasering unwanted hair from the bodies of young women.

When the clinic at the Mall of America abruptly closes, Yungman’s son Einstein is left with a huge mortgage and stock options that are worth nothing. Yungman and Yung-ae decide to take the opportunity to enroll in Doctors without Borders. Young-ae, a previously trained physician who has not practiced medicine since moving to the U.S., takes a short course to become certified as a health aid, and the two embark with a group of doctors for North Korea, where Yungman and Young-ae have an alternative motive for travel.

Lee has broken the book up into five parts, moving backward and forward in time and across continents to reveal Yungman’s early life and trauma while living in Korea during the war, the division of his country and family, the collective grief of the innocent victims of war, and the secrets that Yungman has lived with since leaving Korea with his wife, Young-ae.

Lee is one of a handful of American journalists who have been granted a visa to North Korea since the Korean War. Her book is carefully researched and the sections on Yungman’s early life in Korea, as well as his return, are layered with historical truths and emotional impact. It isn’t an easy thing to sustain momentum in a four hundred plus page book, but Lee’s ending is pitch-perfect and will resonate with readers for a long time.

Listen to my reviews and author interviews on WTIP Radio, 90.7 Grand Marais, and on the web at wtip.org.

I’m late to the party but I did finally arrive and I’m here to say that Hamnet by Irish novelist Maggie O’Farrell, voted one of the best books of 2020, is officially my favorite read so far of 2022. If you have not read it, the benefit of arriving late, is that it is now available in paperback.

Hamnet is an historical novel about the young son of William Shakespeare and his wife, Agnes Hathaway. You might initially think it is a love story, and you wouldn’t be wrong, but it is less about the love of a man for a woman, and more about the love of a parent for a child. O’Farrell imagines much of the novel, as so little has been written about the world’s greatest playwright, but many of her speculations are based upon facts. The boy dies at the age of eleven; he is a twin; William is off in London writing and producing his plays for much of the boy’s life; Hamnet likely died of the bubonic plague — it is 1596 – but there is no historical record of the cause.

William Shakespeare is a young man of eighteen working as a Latin tutor after his shifty father’s business dealings cause a stain on the family name and fortune. Agnes is twenty-six and something of an enigma – she is a beekeeper and an herbalist and spends long days foraging for the flowers and herbs she uses in her healing concoctions. Some think her a witch. After her mother dies in childbirth, her father remarries and so, Agnes and her brother Bartholomew have three stepsiblings. Agnes and Bartholomew look out for each other. When her father dies, he bequeaths Agnes a dowry and the farm to Bartholomew – two gifts that will provide a path forward.

Will is immediately attracted to Agnes. Looking out the window while his young charges (who just happen to be Agnes’s young stepbrothers) recite their lessons, he sees her in the field with her falcon. She is other-worldly – beautiful and beguiling. They fall in love but there are obstacles to marriage. He is too young. His family has been disgraced. Agnes’ stepmother will not allow it. Until Agnes becomes pregnant. Two years after their eldest child, Susanna is born, Will and Agnes have twins: Hamnet and Judith.

When the novel opens, William is living in London and is a successful and established playwright. His family lives in Stratford because of Judith’s frail health and William comes to visit once or twice a year. The separation is hard on the children and the marriage. O’Farrell launches the novel with a growing sense of doom – young Hamnet is looking for his mother, his grandmother, or his eldest sister. While playing, Judith has suddenly fallen ill. She has taken to her bed. His mother is off tending to her bees, they have left their hive and she must coax them back. His grandmother and sister have gone to market. Hamnet must find help but the only one at home is his grandfather, whom he has been warned to give a wide birth – particularly when he is drinking.

The story moves backward and forward in time – from Judith’s sudden illness and Hamnet’s frantic search for help, to the early passionate days of Agnes’s and Will’s courtship, forward again to the twins lying on a pallet in front of the fire, both now stricken by the plague.

O’Farrell’s novel speculates why Shakespeare would write a play and entitle it Hamlet, the two names – Hamnet and Hamlet – interchangeable during that period, but in the famous play, it is the father who dies and the son who lives. The ending of this book will take your breath away. O’Farrell allows the tension in the marriage to build until it feels as though it will implode.

O’Farrell follows Agnes into the woods, into the field, and into the depths of her despair. Her writing is lyrical and layered, her characters are complex, and their relationships are complicated. There will be no easy passageway through this grief, and dear reader, you should be forewarned to have a tissue within reach, but you will be carried along by a mother’s love and a father’s remorse. “There will be no going back,” O’Farrell writes, “Time only runs in one direction.”

Listen to my reviews and author interviews on WTIP Radio 90.7, Grand Marais, MN or on the web at wtip.org.

“Some things sneak up on you when you aren’t even looking and spread themselves out across several years’ time; other things change right away, inside the space of a single heartbeat.”

Carol Dunbar’s debut novel, The Net Beneath Us, opens with a heartbreaking tragedy. While in the forest cutting trees to build his home, there is an accident, and Silas, father of two and husband to Elsa, is mortally injured. He will survive for a time, if you can call it that; Elsa will bring him home to die. But he doesn’t die. Not immediately. He is in a persistent vegetative state – one tube leading in and another leading out. It is heart-wrenching for Elsa to see Silas in this state – this lifeless state – when he has been brimming with life and love and plans for their family. His dream was to live off-grid in the forest he loved, building their house from trees he felled.

“He was holding on for them, Elsa knew. Holding on to all the things he left undone, the house he was building and the well that wasn’t dug.”

Silas found solace in the trees. A tree never takes anything from another tree, he told Elsa. “They stretch out until their tips sense the leaves of another tree, and then they stop.” The forest was his friend; the trees spoke to him, their deep roots and branches reaching to the heavens teaching him something about staying and leaving.

Elsa couldn’t leave. After Silas dies, she is determined to continue his dream. He comes to her in dreams –whole and smiling and wearing a white shirt effervescent in the sunlight, his chest the barrel of a tree trunk. Everything is hard work here: chopping the wood that heats their home, cranking up the generator, washing clothes, caring for children – all in spite of – or maybe because of her grief. Everyday she goes after the woodpile with a vengeance, letting grief and anger fuel the chopping and splitting.

Elsa was not born of this life. Her family had lived in Switzerland. She’d gone to art school. She’d inherited money after her parents’ death and she’d planned to use it to finish school or maybe to fund a gallery exhibition. She’d had plans, but everything changed when she met and fell in love with Silas. They’d had two children and she’d gladly traded her dreams for his. And then he died. Like the heartwood that binds together two halves of a tree, she was bound to this land, to this dream. Before Silas, she’d always solved her problems by leaving. She needed to stay, to learn whatever it was that the land had to teach her.

Dunbar’s writing is evocative and as lush as the forest. Structured in four segments: Fall, Winter, Spring, and Summer, we watch Elsa flail and falter and then grow in strength and confidence as each season passes. THE NET BENEATH US is about the promises we make and keep – to ourselves and to others – and the profound work of grief – how it cleaves us in two and yet, we live, allowing the days and months and years that pass bind us back together, the two halves of a split trunk like the before times and the after times, joined in the middle by the heartwood.

“Grief isn’t just about the person you lost,” Dunbar writes, “it’s about losing the person who you were when you were with them, and who you go on to become.”

THE NET BENEATH US can be preordered today from your favorite bookseller. Highly recommended for fans of Maggie O’Farrell, Nichole Kraus, and Ann Patchett. Listen to my interview with Carol Dunbar September 22 at 7:00 pm on Superior Reads, WTIP Radio, 90.7 Grand Marais, or stream it from the web at wtip.org.

I read five books on my recent vacation – five books that came to me by different means, whether through a book club or a publisher or a friend and they ALL dealt with women fighting for autonomy within patriarchal systems. Huh. I guess it’s a hot topic.

One of the books I read was Violeta by Isabel Allende. Told in first person, Violeta is sharing the story of her life with her grandson. And it was a long life. She’s one-hundred years old at the opening of the book in 2020. That means that her life has been bookended by two world-wide pandemics; she has witnessed the rise and fall of dictators, the subjugation of women to a system designed to entrench the patriarchy, countless wars and political machinations, and the battle for equal rights for women. That’s a lot of living.

Born in 1920, Violeta is the only daughter in a family with five sons. She lives in an unnamed country in South America. The family is wealthy; they can quarantine in their mansion during outbreak of the Spanish flu that kills so many others. Her father’s business practices are questionable and when the Great Depression hits, the family loses everything, and they are forced to retreat to a remote part of the country after her father commits suicide. Accompanied by a sickly mother, her brothers, and a couple of spinster aunts, it is there that Violeta comes of age. Her sheltered life is over. And yet, hardship becomes a blessing for Violeta. She transforms from a histrionic, spoiled girl into an independent and spirited young woman.

As Violeta matures, the family wants her to marry – but Violeta is not keen on the idea – although she is being courted by Fabian Schmidt-Enger, a German veterinarian. Violeta’s brother, Jose’ Antonio forms a business to build prefab houses and she moves to Sacramento to become his assistant. Eventually, Violeta succumbs to the inevitable and marries Fabian, the youngest son of a large family of German immigrants whose family does not like Violeta. Violeta describes the three years of her marriage to Fabian as “uneventful as life in a nunnery.” Then one day, Julian Bravo, a pilot and war hero literally falls into her life and they begin a passionate affair that ends her marriage to Fabian. But, of course, heroes are not without their flaws, and Julian Bravo has more than his fair share.

Allende covers a lot of territory, and the narrative moves along at a fast pace, but we never take a deep dive into any one period. The most moving scenes in the book involve Violeta’s relationships with her children: her troubled daughter who disappears after becoming addicted to heroin, and her son, a student dissident who flees the country rather than be arrested after a military coup.

It is amazing what we endure throughout our lifetimes, and within the sweep of Allende’s novel, this is true for Violeta’s life; she experiences global pandemics, economic collapse, female subjugation, domestic abuse, political upheaval, and a feminist awakening. I admired Violeta and her resolve to live outside of the box society wanted to put her in.

During a time when laws protecting a woman’s body autonomy are being threatened, reading Allende’s book reminds me that throughout history, women have exhibited great strength and resolve, and when banded together, are a force to be reckoned with.

Listen to my author interviews on WTIP Radio 90.7 Grand Marais and on line at http://www.wtip.org on the Fourth Thursday of every month at 7:00 pm and the following Saturday at 6:00 am.

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