Book Reviews

I review books regularly for City Book Review, which publishes the sites Manhattan Book Review, Portland Book Review, San Francisco Book Review and Seattle Book Review. Click on each title to read the full review. All books can be ordered through which supports independent bookstores (and offers you a small discount!)

Here We Are: A Novel by Graham Swift. 5 stars Knopf

“Here we are,” several of the characters in this slim, elegant novel say at various points. It may be a statement of resignation or a declaration of delight or merely recognizing the obvious. It is also ironic since the novel moves back and forth in time, mostly centered on a trio: a magician, his assistant, and the stage compere…

So-Called Normal: A Memoir of Family, Depression and Resilience by Mark Henick. 5 stars Harper Collins

I worked in the field of suicide prevention for many years; this important memoir is unique in that it focuses as much attention on how he got better as it does on the drama of his depression and suicidality. Taking one’s one life is inherently dramatic, but most books gloss over what makes a real difference…

The Mason House: A Memoir by T. Marie Bertineau. 5 stars Lanternfish Press

Theresa is the daughter of Chippewa (now Ojibwe) and French Canadian/Cornish parents, raised in Michigan’s impoverished Upper Peninsula. At least until her parents begin moving every few months or years, dragging the family to West Virginia and Oklahoma, criss-crossing the Midwest…

Beneficence: A Novel by Meredith Hall. 5 stars David R. Godine, Publisher

In the late 1940s, the Senter family enjoys an idyllic, if isolated, life in rural Maine. Parents Tup and Doris love each other and dote on their three children, all of them laboring together to keep their farm running, the family fed, and to still have time for occasional respite. As Tup says, “The farm is a bulwark…This world, and then the world outside. We are safe on this land, in this home.”

The novel is crafted in three parts: Before, During, and After, and the story is told alternately by three members of the family over nearly twenty years time. Before: Life on a working farm is hard: the work is unending, physical, demanding. In a time before television, the family entertains itself in quiet ways: reading aloud in the evenings, telling stories, playing the piano. Death is often nearby…

Bright Precious Thing: A Memoir by Gail Caldwell. 5 stars Random House

I loved Caldwell’s earlier award-winning memoir,Let’s Take the Long Way Home, which focused on her deep and abiding friendship with the deceased writer Caroline Leavitt, for whom she grieves to this day. This new memoir, Bright Precious Thing, surpasses even that. It is one of the best memoirs I have read in years and one of those rare books that I allow myself to mark up, underlining one beautiful sentence after another. Women of a certain age will resonate with Gail’s account of what it meant to come of age during the height of feminism and how that movement continues to affect our lives…

Home Baked: My Mom, Marijuana, and the Stoning of San Francisco by Alia Volz. 5 stars Houghton Mifflin

Home Baked is well written, meticulously researched, and verified with interviews, but not at all academic or stuffy. Alia Volz paints beautiful portraits of the times, the city she loves, and her mother, Meridy, the Brownie Lady, who has never conformed or “gone straight”. Meridy is a fascinating character: lthough she baked and peddled magic brownies for years, she can barely cook. An artist with a strong personality, she yielded to her husband’s (wrong-headed) vision that she would bear him a son. And she throws the I Ching before making any decision….

Blue Tin Sky Poetry by Greg Gregory. 4 stars Avenafatua Press

Blue Tin Sky is clearly a labor of love for poet Greg Gregory. Not only has he written the 54 poems in the collection but also created the cover art, a painting of a storm near Mendocino, which is fitting for poetry so rooted in northern California.The book is divided into four unnamed sections, and nearly all of these free-verse poems are a single page in length and easy to read and contemplate before moving on to the next one. The title poem, Blue Tin Sky, invites us to “come bathe under waterfalls of words” and indeed, many of Gregory’s poems use cascading words to evoke images, sensations, or emotions…

I’m Still Here: A Memoir by Martina Reaves. 4 stars She Writes Press

Martina Reaves has lived an extraordinary life. She has been present and involved in some of America’s most profound changes—moving to San Francisco in 1969, becoming a lawyer when few women did, coming out of the closet and marrying her wife, finding a sperm donor so that they could create a family, and then, years later, supporting her son as he openly and publicly sought out his biological father. She also has survived cancer three times. The first incident was a tumor in her chest discovered when her baby was six months old. Then, two decades later, she finds a sore on her tongue that requires more surgery and chemotherapy. A few years later, the cancer returns, this time on her neck, and she is given a terminal diagnosis. But, as her memoir’s title declares, she is “still here” to tell her story with unflinching honesty….

Willa’s Grove by Laura Munson. 3 1/2 stars Blackstone Publishing

Willa’s Grove is an easy read with a captivating premise: what happens when four women, each in a mid-life crisis, gather for a week in rural Montana to ponder the answer to the question: so now what? As it turns out, each of the four has secrets that take time—and trust—to unfold. The best parts of this book are the conversations and conversions that occur in nature, which Munson describes vividly. Montana-style nature encompasses the delicacy of hummingbirds and the menace of grizzly bears. Munson is good at helping readers feel the grief that Willa experiences. But….

Red at the Bone: A Novel by Jacqueline Woodson. 4 1/2 stars Riverhead Books

“Red at the Bone” is a lyrical novel told from multiple points of view: grandparents, parents, and beloved granddaughter of an African-American family in Brooklyn. Each chapter weaves their personal histories together along with major events in America (the Tulsa massacre of 1921, 9/11). Iris, of the second generation, becomes pregnant at age fifteen and her decision to keep the baby leads to events that affect the entire family as they move out of their neighborhood and bond around caring for the new child. At the same time, Iris is determined to flee her life and go to college, as was always expected of her, and we learn what becomes of her daughter, Melody…

Truthtelling: Stories, Fables, Glimpses by Lynne Sharon Schwartz. 4 stars Delphinium Books

Truthtelling, novelist Lynne Sharon Schwartz’s latest book, is subtitled Stories, Fables, Glimpses, and that is exactly what you get in this slim volume: more than two dozen vignettes, some of them quite brief. All the contents are set in New York and they sometimes remind me of extended versions of the New York Times’ Metropolitan Diary entries. A too-close encounter on a city bus; a woman who borrows her ex-husband’s car and then fails to return it, ever; an elderly neighbor leaves everything to a narrator who finds it more burdensome than not. Former lovers and partners meet again, possibly by chance…

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