• The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store by James McBride **** (of 4)

    The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store is a one-room general store owned by Moshe, but run, at a loss, by his warm-hearted, open-minded, club-footed (polio), empathetic, and tough-as-nails wife, Chona. The store on Chicken Hill may be run by a Jewish family, but it is frequented by Pottstown, Pennsylvania’s Blacks, who along with other immigrants are all but banned from downtown by the Christian elite. It is the 1920s and 1930s and according to Chona, who writes letters to the Pottstown newspaper, it is the town doctor under robes leading the annual KKK parade.

    You would be mistaken, however, if you went into this book expecting a grim tale of racial and ethnic belligerence. Instead, McBride introduces us to some of the most respectable, joyful, conniving, conscientious, and well-meaning Blacks and Jews you will ever have the pleasure of observing. Throughout–as the the two communities work together to rescue a 12-year-old Black child who has been “taken” to a criminally negligent insane asylum typical of the era — we readers have the unique pleasure of being in the room where vernacular conversations ricochet off the walls. Jews answer questions with more questions and African Americans tell stories that build upon other stories and then lead to new stories as they navigate within the confines of racial America. James McBride is one of the few, perhaps, the only, writer capable of telling such a tale with this much grace, compassion, and drive.

  • Properties of Thirst by Marianne Wiggins *** (of 4)

    An ambitious book that centers the Owen’s Valley in California, the valley’s desertification following rerouting all of the valley’s water to Los Angeles, and the placement of the Japanese internment camp, Manzanar, in the midst of the dusty, isolated desert. A lone holdout rancher, Rocky Rhodes, refuses to cooperate with the water boys from LA. He is joined by his twin sister, Casswell, his wife (who is already dead by the time the book opens), and his two children: Sunny and Stryker. (Get it: Rocky Roads, Sunny Roads?). The Rhodes’s come from old waspy money back east.

    Schiff, a nebish of a Jew, with a big conscience, from Chicago is charged with building a camp — really a ghetto — for 10,000 American citizens forced to abandon their jobs and homes with nothing more than what they are wearing and could carry in their hands. Sunny and Schiff have eyes for one another, Sunny is an indomitable chef in the middle of nowhere, Nature (with a capital N) in the desert and in the nearby Sierras is a character in its own right, and Japanese prisoners of war stagger through the indignities of living behind barbed wire.

    Wiggins is a master story teller and a wizard with words, but may have taken on too many themes to do sufficient justice to all of them in one book.

  • Only to Sleep by Lawrence Osborne **** (of 4)

    In 1939, Raymond Chandler wroteThe Big Sleep featuring, Private Investigator Philip Marlowe. Marlowe was the original world weary, cynical PI: hard drinking, self-mocking, and a womanizer. He wore a fedora and could only have existed on a black and white screen played by Humphrey Bogart. In Only to Sleep, it is now 1988 and Marlowe is called out of retirement to traipse across Mexico for an insurance company that thinks one of its clients has just duped them out of a couple of million dollars.

    Marlowe takes the job because he’s bored and wants one more run at his old job. Only his knees and arthritis are bothering him and he’s old enough that the appeal of femmes fatales is more instinctual than physical. Osborne’s Marlowe is a deep philosopher with insights about human nature, decadal changes in Mexico, loneliness, landscape, and growing old. He is also funny and difficult and Osborne’s joy at turning out this novel is infectious. The audiobook is excellent.

  • The Poison Machine *** (of 4)

    Some authors of historical fiction (see Geraldine Brooks) are so caught up by their research that plot and characters are afterthoughts or cliches applied to hold together what really ought to be nonfiction. Robert J. Lloyd, in contrast, paints 1679 England, and in this caper, France, too, with effortless ease. Homing in on a mysterious murder of the Queen’s dwarf, the author sets Robert Hooke and his assistant Harry Hunt on the investigatory trail. They are a perfect duo, because Hooke was, in real life, one of the first scientists of modern history. He and Hunt use the scientific method and are slowly breaking the shackles of one thousand years of church indoctrination.

    Roiling in the background are deadly conflicts between Anglicans and Papists. Isaac Newton makes a guest appearance as do other scientists of the day while poor Harry, in love with Hooke’s niece, Grace, has to uncover the mystery of the murder while learning to stand on his own two feet. The plot is preposterous and believable at the same time and local color is imparted so seemlessly that the somewhat complex question of how the dwarf met his demise is not that important.

  • The End of October by Lawrence Wright *** (of 4)

    The End of October is shocking because of its initial accuracy and publication date. Coming into print just before the pandemic, Wright’s novel describes a global pandemic caused by a rapidly evolving corona virus that results in the deaths of millions worldwide. Which means that all of the indicators necessary to predict exactly how such a pandemic would play out were fully available to anyone willing to do the research and with a desire to write what should have been science fiction.

    The scenarios that Wright must have investigated, and which he included in his novel, included military conflicts that erupted as Shia muslims blamed Shiite countries for releasing an incurable disease leading to military strikes between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Simultaneously, Americans and Russians, who have maintained, or deny maintaining, biowarfare units accused one another of releasing deadly diseases and managing Putin’s ruthlessness and unpredictability weighed heavily on the American administration. As the disease spreads without any means of redressing it, aggrieved countries retaliate with conventional weapons for perceived attacks with bio-weapons.

    Reading the book with all of the hindsight of the pandemic is eerie. The wars that erupt in Wright’s book feel unbelievable, but only because they did not happen. The fact that nearly everything else Wright prognosticated did occur suggests that when millions of people die, societies and governments can collapse under the loss of leadership or the designs of Machiavellian politicians. About halfway through the book the intensifying plot overtakes the exceptionally well-done and finely presented research turning the book into something of a slog. But then again, surviving Covid was also a slog.

  • Gangland by Chuck Hogan *** (of 4)

    Based on the true story of Tony Accardo, Al Capone’s protege, the undisputed mob boss of Chicago in the 1970s. Accardo’s mob runs all of Chicago’s organized crime including a significant portion of the city’s police force and courts. Until, that is, another mobster breaks into Accardo’s home, stealing just enough valuables to send a threatening message. Accardo turns to Nicky Passero to set matters right, by whatever means necessary.

    As mobsters start appearing in trunks, Passero finds himself in a moral quandary, as he himself also is being squeezed by an FBI agent trying his darnedest to work up the Outfit’s ladder to nab the mob’s capo. Passero also has misgivings about how far his trust in Accardo can go and how many murders he can perpetrate in order to stay in the Outfit’s good graces.

    At first the Italian mobsters feel stereotyped, but as their personalities blossom and the suspense builds, Chuck Hogan brings people, place, and an era into irresistibly vivid focus.

  • The Bullet That Missed by Richard Osman **** (of 4)

    This is the third installation of an investigation by four elderly Brits living in Cooper’s Chase retirement community. The four are all a little stiffer, a little harder of hearing, and a trifle more likely to forget where they put down their reading glasses, but they remain just as full of verve and curiosity as ever. They are grateful, too, for their camaraderie and their weekly gatherings dedicated to investigating unsolved crimes. All of which is to say that the characters are so warmly presented and so lovable that Osman’s books would be worth reading even if his mysteries were only mediocre.

    Fortunately, his mysteries are equal parts intricate and intriguing. The case under the careful scrutiny of the Thursday Murder Club is Bethany Waites’ untimely murder. Waites was a young investigative reporter closing in on the criminals running a huge money laundering scheme, when lured from her home one evening, she never returns. Her empty car is located the next day at the edge of a cliff over which her body must have been tossed, only the body never emerges from the sea, the laundered money is never located, and the Thursday Murder Club cannot let it go.

    It is as rewarding for us as readers to be reuninted with Ron, Joyce, Ibrahim, and Elizabeth as it must be for them to see one another in the Cooper’s Chase dining room.

  • American Gods by Neil Gaiman *** (of 4)

    Neil Gaiman, a British author, has written an Icelandic saga about American gods. Equal parts fantasy, history, sociology, and Americana, Gaiman’s protagonist, and our guide to the gods, is called Shadow. Shadow is only recently released from prison, and about to embark on a roadtrip of epic dimensions. Sometimes traveling by Buick and sometimes upon the back of a flying Thunderbird (an eagle-like deity) through a violent thunderstorm, Shadow finds himself betwixt the old gods of North America and the new ones. The old gods were brought to North America by natives crossing the Bering Straits in the last Ice Age, by Vikings, by Irish immigrants and others arriving on the great continent.

    The new gods are threatening to displace the old ones, who are being forgotten with increasing rapidity. The new gods came to the country on televisions, computers, and the internet, and they take as much devotion and as many offerings as their predecessors. As is true with all sagas, there are twists, hairpins, treachery, violence, and love. Gaiman, though he apologizes for his presumptuousness, is just the man to write about Americana. He can see us as we appear in our roadside attractions as only an outsider can.

  • Shrines of Gaiety by Kate Atkinson *** (of 4)

    Atkinson did her homework before reproducing the details of England in the raucous 1920s. Britons released from the devastation of WW I and the influenza epidemic of 1918 are eager to displace horrors of the past with jazz, drink, and dancing. Nellie Coker obliges Londoners with a series of marginally legal nightclubs, each decorated and catering to a different crowd. Corrupt police forces protect her investments while rival money-grubbers take aim at her properties and her riches. Nellie’s adult children and a lone, incorruptible police officer swarm about her like moths at a gas-lit lamppost. Taken together, Atkinson draws light into the shadowy recesses of an era, but there is not much suspense across its 416 pages. It’s like we are watching dancers jitterbug in a black and white clip with the sound off. At first all that motion is riveting, but the titillation isn’t sustaining.

  • The Word is Murder by Antony Horowitz *** (of 4)

    Antony Horowitz – a prolific writer of mysteries for adults, children, and television – definitely had fun writing this one. He cast himself as one of two main characters; the other is a taciturn, deeply-intuitive, non-communicative, sharply intelligent, ex-dectective, called Hawthorne. Together, Horowitz writing himself as Dr. Watson to Hawthorne’s Sherlock Holmes, they dig about in the case of a woman who arranges her own funeral and is then found strangled to death six hours later. Horowitz’s description of himself falls in the category of auto-fiction, meaning a majority of events and relationships he uses to characterize his life are quite accurate (and the point at which he invents things about himself is unknowable). Nonetheless, Horowitz is a master of misdirection, red herrings, and reliable characterizations. Hawthorne is a terrific detective insofar as he always seems capable of seeing the larger picture, but keeps his cards so close to his chest that as readers we think we know what cards he is holding, but for the most part see nothing until he lays them on the table.