When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

Dr. Paul Kalanithi was on the verge of completing his residency to become the neurosurgeon he always dreamed of being, when he noticed that he was losing weight and a persistent back ache was making it hard to get through his shifts. He went to see a doctor and when the X rays came back they seemed fine, so he just kept on going. But just a few weeks later the pain in his back had become almost intolerable and he was losing weight dramatically; from 175 to 145 pounds. He had also developed a persistent cough. He was a doctor, and his wife, Lucy, was an internist. There was little doubt now. It was cancer and this time the X-rays confirmed it: stage IV lung cancer. He was 36 years old.

A Pulitzer Prize finalist, this is the true story of ones man’s journey towards death. A story of a doctor who became a patient, a husband, who as he is dying became a father and a man who on realizing that he would never achieve the goals he has set for himself, must now figure out how to live with integrity the life he has left to live. It is a story of a life stripped to its bare essentials. A philosophical journey with heightened urgency, trying to answer the questions; “What is a good and virtuous life?” and “What is a good death?”

Powerfully written in simple prose, this is a life stripped bare of anything nonessential to living or dying. The questions Kalanithi raises are both universal, and so very individual to him and to the life that remains to him. Yet strangely his words are uplifting, comforting and challenging. We see our own mortality clearly through his experience and that gives us hope that we too can find a path to living fully and dying with grace. Profound and humorous, honest and insightful it is a story that lingers long after you read the final sentence.

Brenda’s Rating: *****(5 Out of 5 Stars)

Recommend this book to: Sharon, Keith, Lauren, Marian and Ken.

Book Study Worthy: Yes!

Read in print format.


Posted in Biography, memoir, Prize winner, Reflections, Spiritual | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Fear the Darkness by Becky Masterman

Ex-FBI agent Brigid Quinn retired with her new husband, Carlo, to Tuscon, Arizona. She keeps busy by teaches a women’s self defense class and has a private investigator’s license so she can occasionally help the local police and sheriff’s department with their more difficult cases, but mostly she is retired and enjoys having a glass of wine with Carlo and the dogs on their patio, watching the sunset over the desert.

It had all been going pretty well until Brigid got a call informing her that her sister-in-law has passed and that her niece, Gemma, would like to come and stay with Brigid and Carlo as she prepares to enter college. Brigid is not thrilled, but family is family and soon Gemma arrives and settles into their home. There has always been something a bit unsettling about Gemma, and Brigid, who use to profile criminals at the FBI, can’t quite put her finger on just what it is that makes her leery of her own niece but the feeling remains, especially after Brigid begins to find the remains of dissected animals around their property.

If living with her suspicions about Gemma were not enough, Brigid is roped into investigating the recent death of a local couple’s son.  Although initially it seems like a straight forward case, the more Brigid looks into it the more odd it seems and the fact that the couple are local celebrities who help raise money for local charities doesn’t help things at all.

Suddenly Brigid’s dream of a quite retirement are completely upended, and her own home which had felt like a sanctuary from her past life, now feels more like an FBI field office. As Brigid tries to find the answer to this young mans’ death, and reach out to her increasingly withdrawn and antagonistic niece, Brigid stumbles onto darker, and more malignant secrets than she ever imagined.

I first met Brigid Quinn in Rage Against the Dying  and she is now one of my favorite characters. She is spunky, strong, a bit socially inept, but determined and she is a woman of my age who is portrayed with great insight and humor. She complains about her stiff joints, but she is also capable of doing some real damage if she is attacked. I love these incongruities, which make her feel human and yet also something to aspire to. This second book in the series shows Brigid growing and changing as her niece pushes all her buttons.  It is also delightful to see Carlo growing into a more concrete and stabilising force in Brigid’s life. Masterman’s original plot line and deft ability to keep you guessing until the very end, makes this book a very exciting and satisfying read!

Brenda’s Rating: ****(4 Out of 5 Stars)

Recommend this book to: Marian, Keith and Sharon

Book Study Worthy? Just enjoy!

Read in ebook format.


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Mississippi Blood by Greg Iles

I don’t usually do this but this time it is necessary! Spoiler Alert: Do not read this review if you have not already read the previous books- Natchez Burning and The Bone Tree!

Mississippi Blood is the final installment in the trilogy that Iles began seven years ago. Set in Natchez, Mississippi the sereis features Penn Cage, a former prosecutor and now mayor of this small, struggling city in the south. His father, Tom, is a doctor and a prominent and well loved member of both the white and black communities. But all of his accomplishments and his reputation are on the line for Tom is now accused of murdering his former lover, a black nurse named Viola who came back to Natchez suffering from an incurable illness.

But there are many secrets beneath the surface of this town. Secrets that are threatened now by Tom’s trial and by Penn’s efforts to help gather facts to support Tom’s defense. The secret of Tom and Viola’s affair is of course shocking to Penn, but he is more concered about Viola’s son who claims he is tom’s son and now seeks vengeance for his abandonment. But there are other secrets as well, such as Tom’s connections with a mob boss who might have had something to do with John F. Kennedy’s assassination, or what Tom knew about the killing of two young civil right’s activists, one of whom was Viola’s brother. As the layers of secrets get stripped away, the role of the Double Eagles, a white supremacist militia group, becomes more and more clearly defined and the Double Eagles step up their efforts to intimidate and terrorize Penn and his family to prevent Tom and Penn from revealing the extent of their crimes. But there are also the personal secrets that have been carried within Penn’s family. Why won’t Tom let his son, an experienced lawyer, help with his defense and what did his mother know about Tom’s affair?

Essentially this is a book about secrets and how they corrupt our relationships in ways that we cannot fully understand. There are the personal secrets that we carry to protect our spouse and our children or friends and then there are the secrets that society carries, hiding the inequality and the injustice that those in power impose on the weak and the voiceless. Iles has created a modern indictment of this kind of social secrecy, holding up the injustice, the lack of civil liberties and the numbing brutality that this kind of secrecy perpetuates. As Iles said in an interview on NPR,  “All my books are an inquiry into the nature of evil. Why do good people do bad things? Are any human beings completely evil? Do we all have good within us? That’s what I’m interested in.” Iles has plumbed the depths of good and evil in this series and has made us confront our own capacity for both.   Reading this book after the events of Charlottesville made me realize how relevant his books are and how much farther we have to go to find ways to search out, expose and  atone for this kind of evil.

Brenda’s Rating: *****(5 Out of 5 Stars)

Recommend this book to? Marian, Sharon, Keith and Ken

Book Study Worthy? Yes!

Read in ebook format.

Posted in Detective novel, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction, Mystery, Series, Suspense, Thriller | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Meddling Kids by Edgar Cantero

About a month ago my older daughter texted me saying, Meddling Kids is hilarious. Nancy Drew and Scooby Doo flashbacks galore. With a lot more ass kicking!”  I think that just about sums it up. This book is a totally delicious nostalgic romp through the best cartoon shows and books of childhood but edgier and with some “bad words,” making it a totally grown up read!

In the summer of 1977, the Blyton Summer Detective Club composed of Andy, the tomboy Kerri, the genius, and her dog Sean, along with Nate, the horror nerd,  and Peter the handsome jock, solved their last case.  Officially they were credited with unmasking the low life fortune hunter who had been “haunting” Deboën Mansion, and he might have gotten away with a small fortune if it hadn’t been for these kids and their meddling.

Now it is 1990 and the tight little group has scattered and no longer keeps in touch. But Andy, who has been haunted by strange visions and disturbing memories of what happened in the summer of 1977, finally decides that it is time to reunite with the members of the Detective Club and see if they can’t find closure for the things they experienced so long ago.  Driving her decrepit car to New York, Andy, who is wanted by the law in two states, arrives at Kerri’s door step, to persuade her to join in her plan.  It quickly becomes clear that Andy is not the only one dealing with the aftermath of what they experienced that summer. Keri, who had shown such great promise as a scientist is now drinking her days away while her dog Tim, the great grandson of Sean, watches stoically. Kerri, after much persuasion falls in with the plan and the two women make their way to the asylum where Nate has committed himself. Unbeknownst to the two women, Nate continues to have periodic contact with Peter,  even though Peter, a rising star in Hollywood, committed suicide quite a few years earlier.  A further indication that whatever happened to them as children has had lasting ill effects! After busting Nate out of the asylum, the newly reconstituted Detective Club heads for Blyton Hills to confront their fears and whatever demons still linger there.

Cantero hits all the right notes in this funny, scary and addictive story.  It is an incredibly risky feat, because one false note, or one to many campy references could make what is charming and nostalgic, into something treacly and yawn inducing. The characters although somewhat loosely based on well known characters from childhood, avoid being caricatures and are fully defined in their own right. Smart and sassy dialogue and an engrossing plot line round out an exciting, fun and very satisfying update to those wonderful memories of childhood!

Brenda’s Rating: *****(5 out of 5 Stars)

Recommend this book to? Keith, Ken, Marian, Lauren and Sharon

Book Study Worthy! Yes!

Read in ebook format.



Posted in Detective novel, Fiction, Horror, Mystery, Series, Suspense | 1 Comment

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

I needed a feel good, uplifting, “everything will turn out fine” kind of book recently. Not surprising, given the events of the last few weeks.  I was looking through my “To Read” list and this book with its quirky title caught my attention and it turned out to be a serendipitous and life affirming choice!  Funny, quirky, with a heroine who is brave beyond words, this book with a supporting cast of characters who make you laugh, cry makes you believe in the essential goodness and kindness of humanity.

Contrary to the title Eleanor Oliphant is not completely fine. Living on her own, now, after being either in foster care or state institutions for most of her life,  she has a decent job and a plant and that is about it. She has achieved these things with strict timetables and rigid control, but with her limited social skills and supercilious demeanor she is the object of much eye rolling and ridicule from her fellow employees. On weekends, however, the control slips and she spends much of her time in a drunken stupor trying to block out some terror from her past.

Eleanor might have maintained this life for quite sometime if it wasn’t for the the old man who fell right in front of her and a co-worker named Raymond. Galvanized by this incident Raymond and Eleanor are able to help the elderly man get to the hospital and stay with him until his family arrives. In some strange way, this incident pulls Eleanor out of the cocoon of her existence, forcing her to interact with and engage the world in ways that she had not done before. Raymond, bumbling and unhygienic, is hardly the kind of person that Eleanor ever thought she would have anything to do with, but she is suddenly pulled into his orbit, meeting his mother, and going with him to visit Sammy, the elderly man they rescued.

But these new experiences threaten to open the doors to a past that she has long held in abeyance with carefully constructed barriers. Now Eleanor must choose to either engage the past, or to shut the door on her newly found entrance into a new and different life.

Honeyman has created the most engaging and off putting character that I have encountered in quite sometime. Eleanor is someone you would love to hate if you met her in real life, but as you encounter her in the book you see things from her perspective and that allows you to see her more empathetically.  Bumbling Raymond is the perfect foil for uptight Eleanor.  Eleanor silently nit picks and judges Raymond for all his perceived faults and yet at the same time begins to realize the many ways he is bringing new life to her otherwise limited and narrow existence. Like the characters in A Man Called Ove or The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry, Eleanor Oliphant completely wins you over, restores your faith in humanity, affirms the innate resilience of individuals and helps us see the power in kindness and love.

Brenda’s Rating: *****(5 Out of 5 Stars)

Recommend this book to? Marian, Lauren, Sharon and Keith

Book Study Worthy? Yes  (There is a book study guide on Amazon!)

Read in ebook format.


Posted in Fiction, Literary Fiction, Mystery, Prize Winner, Romance | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

The Girl In Green by Derek Miller

Although this is a story about the war in Afghanistan, it is not easily categorized either as a war story, or an action thriller. Instead it is one of those books that slowly seeps into your consciousness and sits there, releasing its insights and power long after you have read it.

It is 1991. Dessert Storm is over and peace has been declared. Thomas Benton a British journalist has arrived to embed with the US military at Check Point Zulu, 100 miles from the Kuwaiti border. Benton gets to talking with one of the men on duty, a young man from the Midwest named Arwood Hobbes, who is naive and bored. Benton who has been wanting to actually visit on of the towns and villages to assess whether the peace is real or not, decides to leave the military encampment and after letting Hobbes know what he intends to do, begins walking to the nearby village.  But no sooner has Benton entered the village, a raid by the insurgents with helicopters and ground troops begins in the village and Benton is under fire and pinned down. Realizing what has happened Hobbes leaves his post and tries to find Hobbes in the midst of the shoot out.  Just as Hobbes finds Benton and they begin making their escape back to the US position, Hobbes sees a young girl in a green dress hiding behind some rubble in the street.  Realizing she is in the line of fire, Hobbes tries to rescue her but before he is able to make a move, a rocket lands right in front of her and when the smoke clears there is nothing left but a massive hole in the ground.

Twenty one years later, Benton gets a phone call from Hobbes. “I have found the girl in the green dress,” he says, “and this time we can save her.”

Derek Miller is an impressive story teller. Like Norwegian by Night, his previous book, he is able to take unlikely characters and breathe life and reality into them so that the reader can see them more fully and with empathy. Hobbes is a man on a quest that is quixotic to say the least, but instead of dismissing him, Miller helps us engage and to become sympathetic to what he is trying to achieve. Benton provides the perfect foil to the impulsive Hobbes. Steady, mature and after years as a journalist he is a true skeptic against Hobbes’ unwavering belief that he can make things right again. Written with a touch of humor and with powerful feeling, unusual in a book that is ostensibly an action thriller, Miller has given us an opportunity to ask the deeper questions about war, the impact on the soldiers who fight them and to give name to the “collateral damage” that is inherent in all such endeavors.

Brenda’s Rating: *****(5 out of 5 Stars)

Recommend this book to: Keith, Marian, Sharon and Ken

Book Study Worthy? Yes

Read in ebook format.


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Exposure by Helen Dunmore

I think we have hit a new bar in evaluating books.  It used to be that if a book held my attention  it was a great book. But now with all the drama going on in the White House and in the world that low bar is not enough.  Now a book must hold my attention and keep me interested despite all the latest Twitter wars and other “Breaking News” that keep vying for my attention and outrage.  So it takes a great plot, fascinating characters and some very fine writing to keep me interested and this book by Helen Dunmore really excels in all categories!

It is a late evening in 1960 London.  Giles Holloway, recruited by Moscow as a spy many years ago, is trying to complete his latest communication in the small secret office he has in his apartment. He is photographing a top secret file from the government agency where he works that not only is not supposed to leave the office, but he is not cleared to see. Things are going well, until on his way down the stairs he falls and hurts himself very badly. Now he has a real dilemma.  He needs to go to the hospital but he needs to get the file back to the office before it is missed.  Completely out of options, Giles does the only thing his pain filled brain can come up with-he calls Simon Callington, a man he knew quite well many years ago and asks him to help him.

When Simon finally arrives at the hospital and hears Giles’ request he is reluctant to help, but in the end he finds himself in Giles’ apartment and takes the file.  But as soon as he sees that the file is highly classified, Simon gets suspicious and instead of taking it to the office he decides to buy some time and takes it home.  There he stashes a briefcase with the file in the front hall closet behind the boots and galoshes thinking it will be safe there while he figures out what to do.

Several days later Simon’s wife, Lilly finds the strange briefcase with the classified file while cleaning out the hall closet. Knowing that this has something to do with the trouble that Simon is in at work and wanting to remove it from their lives, she takes it out to the garden in the dead of night and buries it under the compost heap.

Told from varying points of view and with a interweaving plot that connects these disparate characters, Dunmore takes the spy novel genre to a new level and tells it from the point of view of regular people whose lives are torn apart by suspicion. Lilly is a wonderful character, who bears the brunt of the tragedy as it unfolds, trying to be strong for the children as the family is torn apart. Dunmore is a gifted writer, attune to the flaws and nuances in her characters and leaving us both surprised and satisfied in the end.

Brenda’s Rating: *****(5 Out of 5 Stars)

Recommend this book to: Keith, Sharon, Marian and Ken

Book Study Worthy? Yes!

Read in ebook format.



Posted in Fiction, Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction, Spy/Covert Operatives, Suspense, Thriller | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment