Superior Reads


Mary Casanova is the author of thirty-nine books — most of which have been written for young readers. Waterfall is her third adult novel set on Rainy Lake in northern Minnesota. Waterfall is the story of Trinity Baird who has recently returned to the family’s summer home after nearly two years at Oak Hills Asylum, where she was committed for hysteria. The year is 1922, women have just gotten the vote, and Trinity is a young woman struggling to assert her independence in a society that defines respectable women within the narrow confines of marriage and motherhood. Trinity is a gifted artist and wishes to continue her studies in Paris, a privilege afforded only through her family’s wealth and generosity. Walking a fine line between pleasing her family and living an authentic life, Trinity gradually grows strong enough to speak her truth.

Mary Casanova shines a dim light upon the early treatment of mental illness, the infantilization of women in the early twentieth century, and drug addiction in the privileged class. Though heavy subjects, the novel treats all these things with a light hand, so readers who prefer their historical fiction to be unburdened by the darker aspects of the early twentieth century, should still find WATERFALL appealing. The story of resilience and resistance as told through Trinity’s experience may also appeal to teen readers.

BRAIDING SWEETGRASS, INDIGENOUS WISDOM, SCIENTIFIC KNOWLEDGE, AND THE TEACHINGS OF PLANTS BY Robin Wall Kimmerer may be one of the most important books I’ve ever read, and though so many of you have already read it, I thought I would add my voice to the chorus of readers singing its praises. Milkweed has just issued a second hardcover edition with a stamped linen cover, deckled edges, and five beautiful illustrations by artist Nate Christopherson.

One of the most profound takeaways for me came from the chapter on making a black ash basket. In a class taught by John Pigeon, a member of the renowned Pigeon family of Potawatomi basket makers. In John’s class, the class does not assemble a basket from ready made splints, they go out into the woods and find their tree – recognizing that the tree is a living thing — and asking its permission to harvest it. “Traditional harvesters recognize the individuality of each tree as a person, a nonhuman forest person.” This passage, illustrates the responsibility of humans to the natural world:

“ . . . every once in a while, with a basket in hand, or a peach or a pencil, there is that moment when the mind and spirit open to all the connections, to all the lives and our responsibility to use them well. And just in that moment, I can hear John Pigeon say, ‘Slow down – it’s thirty years of a tree’s life you’ve got in your hands there. Don’t you owe it a few minutes to think about what you’ll do with it?’”

Throughout Kimmerer’s work, the symbiotic relationships between all living things are ever present. A mindful approach to the relationships between humans, plants, and animals and their interdependence upon each other are foundational to her understanding and teaching of biology – and living.

I wonder when and how our relationships to the land, animals, and plants were severed to the point in which we considered them other? Was it in the industrial age? When we no longer had a connection to the hunting and gathering aspects of our food sources? And is this process something that barreled down a continuum to when we were able to consider other humans, different from ourselves, as others, separate from our humanity in the way we saw the humanity of plants and animals separate from our own human existence?

Kimmerer writes lyrically, with the heart and eye of a poet, and the mind of a botanist. BRAIDING SWEETGRASS should be required reading. How do we get back the connections we have lost? Whatever it takes, I feel as though Robin Wall Kimmerer’s BRAIDING SWEETGRASS will be an element in that confluence, that coming together again, for me. The problem and the solution both laid out before us in this beautiful collection.

While reading BRAIDING SWEETGRASS, I wondered how different our world might be with a Native American Secretary of the Interior. Instead of looking to profit margins of large corporations, might we look also at our responsibility to care for the land, the animals and plants and humans who live there? Might we slow down and in the words of John Pigeon, consider the life that exists in a place and what we should do with it? In her poetic voice, Kimmerer writes that overdevelopment and overconsumption, are destroying the planet.

“People often ask me what one thing I would recommend to restore relationship between land and people,” Kimmerer writes, “My answer is almost always ‘Plant a garden.’ It’s good for the health of the earth and it’s good for the health of people. A garden is a nursery for nurturing connection, the soil for cultivation of practical reverence . . . once you develop a relationship with a little patch of earth, it becomes a seed itself. Something essential happens in a vegetable garden. It’s a place where if you can’t say ‘I love you’ out loud, you can say it in seeds. And the land will reciprocate, in beans.”

Dear Reader, pick up a copy of Braiding Sweetgrass and then . . . go plant a garden.

This is Lin Salisbury with Superior Reviews. Listen to my author interviews on 90.7 WTIP Grand Marais or stream them from the web at the fourth Wednesday of every month at 7:00 pm.

Kathleen West, author of MINOR DRAMAS AND OTHER CATASTROPHES is back with a rollick through teenage angst and twenty-first century parenting in ARE WE THERE YET?

Alice Sullivan has it all – two perfect children, a handsome and successful husband, and a booming interior design business – until suddenly, she doesn’t. In a conflagration of events, Alice learns that her second grade daughter, Adrian, is reading below grade level, her seventh grade son, Teddy, has been suspended for bullying another student, and her job is on the line as she ricochets between parent/teacher conferences and meetings with the principal. Alice’s husband, Patrick, is away on business all week long and only home on the weekends, but her mother Evelyn, a child psychologist, is on hand with advice and unfortunately, a long-held secret that threatens to further unravel Alice’s carefully curated life.

The crisis with Teddy upends her relationships with Nadia and Meredith, her best friends since their children began kindergarten together. Alice had always considered Nadia the bad parent in the threesome, since her son Donovan began displaying antisocial behavior early in elementary school. Meredith was the parenting expert, holding up her daughter Sadie’s good grades and talent like trophies. Like most pre-teens, Teddy and Sadie were on social media to stay connected to their friends – Instagram and Snapchat their preferred platforms – and like most of their friends they had Finstas – fake Instagram accounts so that their parents wouldn’t find any damning evidence when checking up on them. All of that was about to change.

Teddy’s suspension is the focal point du jour and Meredith is quick to judge while Nadia feels she has a new compatriot, until Sadie’s own impulsivity takes the stage.

Just when it seems it can’t get worse, Alice’s boss starts undercutting her at work and her mother Evelyn announces that she’s reunited with a daughter she gave up for adoption — a psychologist with two untainted children. Evelyn hopes that her daughters will be as close as sisters, but Alice is having none of it.

If you’re a parent, the teen’s choices will make you wince and the rivalry between Alice, Nadia, and Meredith will be uncomfortably familiar. Nonetheless, under West’s careful hand, you’ll be able to laugh while you cry.

I recommend ARE WE THERE YET for fans of Maria Semple, Jennifer Weiner, and Emily Giffin.
This is Lin Salisbury with Superior Reviews.

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.

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.

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.

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 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.

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.

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