Friday, May 31, 2019


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Bowlaway, Elizabeth McCracken, Ecco, 2019, 295 pp
When a member of my three person Tiny Book Club recommended we read Bowlaway, I was doubtful. A book about bowling? Since I trust this woman's choices in reading, since it was getting great reviews and ratings, I dove in. It was amazing.
The body of a woman is found in the cemetery. She is alive, wearing a divided skirt, with a gladstone bag beside her containing "one abandoned corset, one small bowling ball, one slender candlepin, and under a false bottom, fifteen pounds of gold." Each of these items play a part in the story.

The woman is Bertha Truitt, mysterious, free-sprited, and the most quirky character in a story full of them. The time is the turn of the 20th century. The place is Salford, a small town outside of Boston.

This wonderful story is about candlepin bowling, women, men, and three generations of a most odd family. Just as I had settled in to loving Bertha, she dies. It was shocking! Not a spoiler but I would not have told you except it is mentioned in the book summary and she had to die to make way for the rest of the story.

Elizabeth McCracken, who has written novels, short stories and a memoir, is a wonderful writer. Not a wrong word or phrase or sentence in her almost hefty prose. I am so happy to have made her acquaintance. She has an edginess to her similar to Lydia Millet or Amy Bloom. Her concepts about family reminded me of Ann Patchett. 

Women's fiction as I like it, without false notes, sentimentality or egregious psychological violence. Yet, her women are sentimental, her men are sometimes false, and everyone is portrayed in all their psychological weirdness, while there is just enough violence to keep you on your toes.

All three of us Tinies were rapturously impressed. Bowling (candlepin bowling) infuses the story but it is about life.

Tuesday, May 28, 2019


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A Student of History, Nina Revoyr, Akashic Books, 2019, 238 pp
Nina Revoyr is a Los Angeles treasure. Born in Japan to a Japanese mother and a White American father, she grew up in Tokyo and Wisconsin, then Los Angeles. Her own experiences inform both her writing and her life's work to serve children affected by violence and poverty. I think her keen eye for injustice is what makes her novels so honestly close to the bone while not ever beating you over the head.
In this, her seventh novel, A Student of History, she takes on the huge disparity between the super rich and the rest of us here in my own town. Rick is a graduate student in history at the University of Southern California. He has lost his way trying to write his thesis and faces two bad outcomes. If he doesn't make progress he will lose his financial assistance from the university and will have no way to afford, well anything. The only skill he has is researching. Also his girlfriend has recently left him.

By a stroke of luck, he is offered a research assistant job with an elderly woman. Mrs W-- is heir to a stupendously large oil fortune and wants her handwritten journals typed up. Working 10 hours a week in her Bel Air mansion, Rick is thrown into a world so far from his racially mixed, blue collar upbringing that it might as well be a foreign country.

Soon enough Mrs W-- also begins to use him as an escort to high society events, even going so far as to buy him a wardrobe so he fits in. His innocence about how these people live and operate leads him to make questionable choices, resulting in a huge breach of trust with Mrs W--.

My husband has done some work for an uber-rich Los Angeles woman, running sound for her lavish series of annual Christmas parties. He had seen this world and come home with stories, but he grew up in an upper middle class environment, so he knows how to handle himself.

Watching Rick fall into the rabbit hole, risking everything, his innocence betrayed by people who have agendas incomprehensible to regular people, was unnerving in the extreme.

You know that feeling one gets that the enormously wealthy of this country don't really have the good of others in mind as they wheel and deal? This is one of those novels that peeks into that world, all the while making these people come to life. They are not on the whole happy, fulfilled individuals. They have secrets and grudges and personal sorrows. Revoyr evokes a certain sympathy for some of them but they are untouchable, by the law, by any conception of the world outside their world. They literally get away with murder and more.

In just 238 pages of uncomplicated prose, Nina Revoyr makes it chillingly real.

Monday, May 27, 2019


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Sometimes A Great Notion, Ken Kesey, Viking Penguin, 1964, 628 pp
Summary from Goodreads: This wild-spirited tale tells of a bitter strike that rages through a small lumber town along the Oregon coast. Bucking that strike out of sheer cussedness are the Stampers. Out of the Stamper family's rivalries and betrayals Ken Kesey has crafted a novel with the mythic impact of Greek tragedy.
My Review:
Most people only know of Ken Kesey, the novelist, because of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Some people know of him as the grand master of the Merry Pranksters in all their counter-cultural madness. "Either you're on the bus or you're off the bus."  Sometimes A Great Notion was his second novel. It is long, it is deep, it is a bit experimental, but it is also considered his masterpiece.
I spent four days reading the book's 628 pages. The last two days I read over 200 pages a day because once I got through the eye of the needle that was the beginning, I was exponentially more enraptured every day. If you like long novels, this is one well worth spending your time reading.
The novel concerns an Oregon logging clan, their struggles, their successes, their deep family problems. If at any moment it feels like the Stampers are going down, you don't find out until the very end if they will. 
Such fully fleshed heroic characters, such desperate dysfunction, such glorious writing about the people, the location, the weather, the physical and emotional strife. Such eccentricity in the face of change, such sheer cussedness indeed!
John Steinbeck is probably the most famous writer of the American West. Another guy who became well known for one novel: The Grapes of Wrath. Both went to Stanford University, both wrote about the plight of the common man. They were a generation apart. I would bet that Kesey read Steinbeck. My favorite Steinbeck novel is East of Eden. I think Sometimes a Great Notion was Kesey's East of Eden

Sunday, May 26, 2019


The Tears of Autumn, Charles McCarry, The Overlook Press, 2005, 276 pp
I only learned about Charles McCarry because he passed away in February of this year. When I discovered he wrote spy thrillers, I got The Tears of Autumn for my husband, who found it great. The series features Paul Christopher, a secret agent. McCarry was a former undercover operative for the CIA before he began writing. I had to read it!
Christopher has a pretty good idea who arranged the assassination of JFK and the book tells the story of how he went about verifying his suspicions. Due to his many years in the system he has contacts all over the world and his superiors in the agency trust him. It is a startling theory about one of our country's unresolved mysteries and a well written, highly suspenseful read. When Paul Christopher presents his findings, the powers that be decide to keep it secret. 

I am not into conspiracy theories but then again I find some of them plausible. This one, especially in light of our current political scene, made me ponder how much regular citizens actually know about what goes on. If you like such stories, you should read this one.

(I found the copy I read at my library. The book is apparently not in print otherwise but can be found at used sellers and as an ebook or audiobook.)

Wednesday, May 22, 2019


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Disoriental, Negar Djavadi, Europa Editions, 2018, 338 pp (originally published by Liana Levi, Paris, France; translated from the French by Tina Kover)
This was the book I read in May for my Read One Translated Book a Month Challenge. It was so excellent and goes into the running for my Top 25 Books Read this year.
Negar Djavadi was born in Iran in 1969 to intellectual parents opposed to the regimes of both the Shah and Khomeni. She arrived in France at the age of eleven, having crossed the mountains of Kurdistan on horseback with her mother and sister.

The novel is loosely based on her experiences. It does require the reader to have some knowledge of Iranian politics in the late 20th century. My knowledge was scanty indeed but now we have the internet and I used it. I also needed to learn more about the geography between Iran and France.

Kimia Sadr, the heroine of the novel, came from a large Iranian family with deep roots in the country's history. Her great-grandfather owned vast lands and had 52 wives in his harem! One of his sons had six sons. Darius Sadr was one of them and is Kimia's father. The rest of the sons are her uncles, called by their birth order: Uncle number One, etc. The uncles include an attorney, a secretly gay man who manages the family lands and keeps their history, a notary, a shop keeper and a literature professor. Darius is an intellectual and wrote for various publications until he got himself into deep trouble and had to escape to Paris.

Kimia's mother is Armenian. She loves and supports her husband, being as fiercely revolutionary as he is. The Armenian grandmother helps to raise Kimia and her two older sisters as well as filling them with myths, herbology and her amazing cooking.

Kimia is in full possession of her parents' rebellious spirit and does not fit in with Iranian society. She, her sisters and mother follow Darius to Paris making that journey over the mountains on horseback in winter. Paris has always served as the family's intellectual and cultural Mecca but Kimia has the most trouble adapting. The family trauma has lodged itself in her psyche.

The novel is a story about fear, exile, and adaptation. Though Kimia has no lack of spirit, she struggles with school and Parisian life due to her lesser command of French, compared to the rest of the family. She calls it a "scar." 

"This scar that runs across my vocabulary is my only concession to vanity; the only hint of resistance in my efforts to integrate, lets call them...Because to integrate into a culture, I can tell you that you have to disintegrate first, at least partially, from your own. You have to separate, detach, disassociate. No one who demands that immigrants make 'an effort at integration' would dare look them in the face and ask them to start by making a necessary 'effort at disintegration.' They're asking people to stand atop the mountain without climbing up it first"

I have not ever heard this phenomenon put so well. Hence the title of the book: Disoriental.
When the story opens Kimia is waiting for her doctor at a fertility clinic. She is in her 20s and has made great strides with that integration. Then she goes back and forth in time and between cultures telling how she did it. Though that is sometimes disorienting for the reader, her tale always pulses along with plot and mystery and danger and suspense. It covers all the main hot spots of political and personal life in the early 21st century so that though the locations are Iran and France, it could be anywhere. It rewards patient reading and a bit of research into the unfamiliar with a most satisfying and hopeful ending.
Negar Djavadi is a screenwriter by profession and Disoriental is her first novel. Perhaps that is why it is so cinematic and so dramatically astute.

Monday, May 20, 2019


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Thirty Seven, Peter Stenson, Dzanc Books, 2018, 269 pp
Another debut novel from an indie press, sent to me as the February, 2019 Nervous Breakdown Book Club selection. It is a horror novel with an unique twist. Actually I don't know for sure if it is a unique twist because I have read very little in the horror genre. I listened to the interview with Peter Stenson on the Otherppl podcast and decided to try the book, with trepidation.
Mason Hues, adopted and abused by his adoptive father, ran away from that home and ended up in a cult called The Survivors. In the telling of his story he is an unreliable narrator due to being in denial about a terrible thing he did when he was 15.

While there is plenty of blood with horrible scenes, the book is also about how cults operate and how their leaders are messed up individuals trying to work out their own issues through the cult they created and through the power that gives them over others.

Though it is extremely well written, plot-wise and character-wise with near perfect language and tone, I don't recommend it for anyone but those who like horror or have a strong drive to understand the phenomenon of cults.

This may turn out to be my gateway to the genre. Perhaps I have grown up enough to be a bit more free of the fairy tales I was raised on about life and love and progress and achievement. Evil is alive and well in the world and it takes a lot of courage to confront that, to live a decent life in the face of it, to be able to find the balance between good and evil. Or to deal with the truth that the concept of good vs evil is just another crappy duality humans have devised to make sense of how random life can be.

Saturday, May 18, 2019


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The Time of Our Singing, Richard Powers, Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2003, 631 pp
This completely wonderful novel was the fifth I have read in my 2019 challenge to read all the Richard Powers novels in reverse order of publication. It is as great in its own way as The Overstory and Orfeo.
I have complained in years gone by when white authors try to tell us about African Americans. Some authors also have trouble writing characters who are of the opposite sex, but a great writer can seem to inhabit the humanity of anyone and Richard Powers is one of those. 

Delia, a young Black woman with aspirations to become a classical singer, goes all on her own to Washington, DC, on Easter, 1939 to watch her idol, Marian Anderson sing on the Washington Mall. An epochal concert at an epochal location. Right after the concert, in the enormous crowd, Delia meets David, a German Jewish scientist who by luck escaped Germany but lost his entire family to the Nazi horror show.

Their connection is instant and undeniable. Against Delia's parents' wishes they marry, have three children and attempt to raise them outside of racism as an example of how the future could be. A dream of love and hope infused with music and song and Einstein's theories about time.

Of course the future has not yet come! Will it ever? These mixed race children, all extremely bright and musically talented, must each find his or her way through time, through racism, through everything late 20th century America has to offer.

To be young, gifted, and half Black.

Human beings, with our opposable thumbs, our clever minds, our opposable abilities to create constructively and destructively, our frail bodies at the mercy of the elements, our volatile emotions. Oh my, the stories we live, tell, sing about, write and read. Some people like to read comforting stories about love conquering all and the family ties that bind. Others like to read horror stories about crime, war and psychological strife. I like to read about everything and only require the artistry of the writers to be equal to telling the tales.

When Richard Powers, who has sufficient artistry, also includes music he really soars, as he does in The Time of Our Singing. I am a singer, lately at home or in my car, but I have always loved to sing. He reached right into me with this one.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019


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The Spire, William Golding, Harcourt Brace & World, 1964, 215 pp
Imagine my surprise when I started William Golding's 1964 novel The Spire and found myself in a fictional Salisbury cathedral. I have read four of Golding's novels, including his most famous Lord of the Flies, but never have I found a priest among his protagonists.
Dean Jocelin, the head priest, has a vision as well as an obsession to have a 404 foot high spire built onto his cathedral. He feels it will honor God and draw parishioners from miles around. He forces his will upon his architect, the workers and the townspeople. If he gets it built it will also, as the reader gradually learns, bring glory to himself.

In the medieval times of the novel's setting, such spires were being built onto churches across Europe, advancing architecture by leaps and bounds. New techniques had to be developed to support such height and weight. But Dean Jocelin's church has shaky foundations which cause the rising walls to shriek and wave in the wind while driving the architect/chief builder to despair as he tries to carry out the project.

It turns out this novel is a descent into madness tale. I love those! Thus it fits Golding's usual theme about man's will versus hardship and tragedy. The gothic setting, certain dark secrets carried by the priest, and the author's keen insights into human psychology made the book great for me.

However, once again I was confronted with stream-of-consciousness passages, multiple narrators, and as an additional touch, plenty of allegory, so it was a challenging read as well. Golding is the fourth Nobel Prize winning author I have read this year so far. His writing is a feat as amazing as the spire itself.

Monday, May 13, 2019


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The Wrecking Crew, Donald Hamilton, Faucett, 1960, 176 pp
 This is the second book in Donald Hamilton's Matt Helm series, about an assassin for a secret government agency which is probably some department of the CIA. I thought the first one was pretty good, wasn't sure if I would go on. But I am having a bout of obsession with the CIA. Perhaps because I am currently reading Robert Caro's The Passage of Power, #4 in his biography of Lyndon B Johnson. In the section I read last week, LBJ is Vice President to John F Kennedy and the whole Bay of Pigs and Cuban Missile Crisis has been going on. The CIA was deeply involved with attempts to assassinate Castro.
In The Wrecking Crew, Matt Helm has been sent to find and destroy a Russian agent. The locating of and chase after this mythically elusive agent takes place in Sweden. It is winter and it is cold. He finally faces Caselius in the north woods of the country's ore region.

As in the first book, Death of a Citizen, the women are sexy and dangerous. Helm has to deal with annoying agents on his own side, never sure who he can trust. The story put me in mind of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo series due to the location, though Hamilton indulges in some typical 1960s cringe-worthy descriptions of his female characters. Two of them die during the caper. It's all in a days work in these early secret service novels.

Still, it was a quick and entertaining read. I decided I would continue with the series. Thanks again to blogger Lisa at Captivated Reader for finding these books for me.

Sunday, May 12, 2019


My Mother's Day Tale
This is the story of how a peahen (female peacock) chose to make a nest in the planter outside my front door. It all began on March 31st when I noticed an egg in the middle of some succulents in the planter. I have seen that size of egg before because my neighborhood has about 75 peacocks roaming wild, left over from someone who had a few but moved away and left them here. I have seen, every spring, the peahens making their way through my property with anywhere from 2 to 7 chicks following behind. So I knew it had to be a peacock egg.


This lone egg sat there for several days. Then, day by day, more eggs began to appear.

By the time there were 10 eggs, the peahen began to sit on the nest for many hours a day. She would leave for a short time, I guess to get something to eat. She would have visitors, both male and female. We called the females the aunties. For many weeks, it was like a baby shower out there.

I did some research and learned that it takes 28 days for peacock eggs to hatch. It was confusing since it had already taken over a week for the 10 eggs to be laid. But sure enough, 28 days after the tenth egg appeared, I came out in the morning to check and this is what I found.

Peahen gone, six broken egg shells, four whole eggs. It was a cold and rainy morning. I searched around but found no sign of any mother or chicks. Then I heard outside my office window the sound the peahen makes to keep her chicks following her and saw them crossing the driveway. The best shot we could get shows only two of the chicks but there were definitely six. The mother had led them to our green waste receptacle and was hiding them there.

About an hour later I found them under some bushes by the driveway. Sorry no photo. She was really good at hiding them. Later still I found her down near our street behind my rock garden sitting on all the chicks, keeping them warm and dry. Soon they were no longer there and I have not seen them since. I surmised that she had laid more eggs than she could hatch because she never returned to the nest. 

I have had a negative attitude to these creatures because they eat my favorite flowers, they walk all over my low shrugs breaking branches and of course they poop incessantly. This experience changed my attitude. Checking on that mother every morning and several times a day for four weeks, we got to have a relationship of sorts. She did not seem to fear me. I was sorry not to have seen the actual hatching.

Now I am on the lookout for a peahen with 6 somewhat bigger chicks trailing along.

Thursday, May 09, 2019


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The Reactive, Masande Ntshanga, Two Dollar Radio, 2016, 161 pp
Once again I have the Nervous Breakdown Book Club (a subscription) to thank for sending a book I would otherwise not have read, let alone heard about. Brad Listi, who chooses the books and then interviews the authors on his podcast, makes sure to spotlight new authors as well as indie presses.
The Reactive, written in English by a native, black South African male, is set in Cape Town. It is the year 2000, Apartheid has just ended and the HIV virus is rampant. ARVs (anti-retroviral drugs) are being produced but they are not yet widely available and are prohibitively expensive.

Lindanathi is a young man whose half brother has recently been brutally killed. That loss along with him testing as HIV+ has alienated him from his family and the small village where he grew up. His uncle is calling him home. Lindanathi has lost his way in life, dropping out of school and living an aimless existence with two friends.

These friends work low paying jobs and supplement their income selling ARVs on the black market. Mostly they stay high and contemplate the inequalities in their country. The dreariness of life, the lack of purpose, the wounds they carry are not spelled out. The author shows us rather than telling us. He takes us through the minutiae of their days, through the conversations between them, through the pictures he creates of their surroundings.

The prose is hypnotic, filled with atmosphere and wandering. I was not aware of a plot until I got to the end. I had been taken on Lindanathi's psychic journey from grief and guilt over his brother along with anxiety about his own mortality to a state of redemption through penance and reconnection with  the traditions and values of his home village.

Not since Chinua Achebe's African Trilogy (Things Fall Apart, Arrow of God, No Longer At Ease) have I been so moved by writing from the countries of Africa. I will be on the lookout for more novels from Masande Ntshanga.

Wednesday, May 08, 2019


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Nineteen Minutes, Jodi Picoult, Atria Books, 2007, 455 pp
As I read this reading group pick, it was just days before the 20th anniversary of the Columbine High School massacre. I find it hard to absorb the terrible truth that we have been living under this horror for two decades now without any effective measures being taken.
Given her interests, it is no surprise that Jodi Picoult would take up the subject in a novel. Unfortunately for me, I did not like anything about her book. Not the writing, not the portrayal of the characters, and especially not her usual attempt to find answers without clearly taking a stand on the issue.

That is all I will say. I know Picoult has devoted fans, I am sure she is making a living writing novels, and I grant that she brings tough topics before the minds and hearts of readers, especially white female adult readers.

Only I and one other group member disliked the novel. The Bookie Babes have read four of Picoult's books over the years, therefore so have I. I am calling it quits on this author, no matter what.

Sunday, May 05, 2019


I had a satisfying month of reading groups in April. Tina's Group had a mostly favorable opinion of As I Lay Dying with only one dissenter. At One Book At A Time everyone became a fan of Toni Morrison after reading and discussing The Bluest Eye. I missed the discussion at Carol's Group of Once Upon A River but the other two members were enchanted by the novel. The Bookie Babes mostly liked Nineteen Minutes but I had to behave myself because I really did not. You will be seeing my review in a day or so.

This month is full with 5 of my 6 groups meeting. But I have already read three of the books so I am in good shape: The Weight of Ink, Washington Black and Killers of the Flower Moon. They are all good books for discussion.

Carol's Group:
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Tiny Book Club: 
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Molly's Group:
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One Book At A Time:
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Bookie Babes:
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What are your groups discussing this month? Have you had a particularly great discussion recently?

Friday, May 03, 2019


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The City in the Middle of the City, Charlie Jane Anders, TOR Books, 2019, 363 pp
I have not made an exact count but I feel like the second largest category of books I read is speculative fiction: science fiction, fantasy, post apocalyptic, and slipstream. I loved Charlie Jane Anders's first novel, All the Birds in the Sky, in which she merged magic, science, climate fiction, time travel and a few other things. As I said in my review of that one, "This is a book for geeks of all kinds."
Therefore I was quite excited to read her second novel. The City in the Middle of the City is set on a fictional planet called January, a strange planet because it does not rotate on its axis. This leaves it divided between a permanently frozen darkness on one side and a blazing endless sunshine on the other.

January was settled by space travelers from Earth several generations ago. Their descendants live on a sliver of habitable dusk between the darkness and the sunshine. Having lost all contact with Earth, their technology is deteriorating, the infrastructure crumbling and unstable. There are just two cities with quite different politics and social values but they maintain an uneasy peace because each has things the other city needs.

My only trouble with the book was the world building. For me, it was similar to trying to grok the world created by N K Jemisin in her Broken Earth Trilogy (The Fifth Season, The Obelisk Gate, and The Stone Sky.) When I have trouble creating my own mental pictures while reading I get a little cranky. I found an artist's rendering of one of the cities on Charlie Jane Anders's website and kept it open as I read. I clung to it like a stranger in a strange land.

The plot was good though and kept me reading, so eventually I got involved because of the characters. Lots of characters, but I learned not to get too attached because people die at an alarming rate. I had to admire how the author kept a pervasive sense of danger on every page.
The four major characters are women, whose friendships, alliances and romantic connections changed, shifted, morphed oh so often. If you consider that they were each subject to that continuous danger, that two of them were teens on the brink of adulthood, that the other two were battle-scarred bodacious fighters, you could give them a break. There is also on January an indigenous race of creatures resembling crocodiles but with empathic powers. 
I learned in her first book that Charlie Jane Anders is deep into some weird craziness when she writes (she was after all the editor-in-chief of io9, a site devoted to sci fi and fantasy.) The crazy continues here along with her intricate and admirable characters. I finally figured out by the end where she was going with the story but as it was for the characters living on January, I realized I had been on my own the entire time.
If anyone is going to figure out how to keep Earth a habitable planet for humans, it will be a select group of authors, scientists and spiritual types. That group would do well to include Charlie Jane Anders.

Wednesday, May 01, 2019


April brought a little bit of everything: rain, sun, cool days and warm days, but best of all flowers! Everything is sooo green! When we have rain like we did this past winter, we have green and plenty of blooms in April. My reading also ranged from great to weird to one horrible book, covering many places and every emotion. If it had not been for two long books I might have read more but I did fine, I think.

Stats: 12 books read. 12 fiction. 4 written by women. 3 for My Big Fat Reading Project. 3 mystery/thrillers. 1 translated. 1 speculative. 3 written by Nobel Prize winning authors.

Places I went: Brazil, South Africa, Great Britain. In the US: Illinois, Mississippi, Ohio, New Hampshire, Colorado.

Authors new to me: Masande Ntshanga and Peter Stenson.

Favorite book: The Time of Our Singing. Least favorite: Nineteen Minutes.
I am woefully behind on posting reviews but what else is new?

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How did your reading go in April? Did you have some favorite books?