In “Take My Hand,” Delon Perkins-Valdez takes us to Montgomery, Alabama, where in 1973 Civil Townsend is fresh out of nursing school and intends to make a difference, especially in her African American community. At the Montgomery Family Planning Clinic, she hopes to help women shape their destinies, to make their own choices for their lives and bodies. But when her first week on the job takes her along a dusty country road to a worn-down one-room cabin, Civil is shocked to learn that her new patients, Erica and India, are children – just eleven and thirteen years old. Neither of the Williams sisters has even kissed a boy, but they are poor and Black, and for those handling the family’s welfare benefits, that’s reason enough to have the girls on birth control. As Civil grapples with her role, she takes India, Erica, and their family into her heart. Until one day she arrives at their door to learn the unthinkable has happened, and nothing will ever be the same for any of them. Decades later, her daughter grown and a long career in her wake, Dr. Civil Townsend is ready to retire, to find her peace, and to leave the past behind. But there are people and stories that refuse to be forgotten, that must not be forgotten, because history repeats what we don’t remember. This impactful story fictionalizes a real historical case, one link in a chain of the shameful history of state-sanctioned abuses to the health and reproductive rights of Black Americans and other people of color, including the Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male that went on for forty years and left hundreds of men untreated, letting them die long after penicillin was available. It’s a legacy that continues, legally, today. “Our bodies belonged to us,” Civil insists. “Poor, disabled, it didn’t matter.” This novel will stay with you.
“The Boys,” by Katie Hafner, is a pure treat, with a knockout surprise in the center that will have you rethinking every assumption you’ve made along the way. When introverted Ethan Fawcett marries outgoing Barb, he has every reason to believe he will be delivered from a lifetime of solitude. And when Barb brings home two young brothers, Tommy and Sam, to foster in preparation for the couple becoming parents, he feels he finally has the sense of family he lost as a boy. As the pandemic hits, Ethen becomes obsessed with providing a perfect life for the boys, studying their native Russian, homeschooling them, watching TV with them, barely leaving the house. But instead of bringing Barb and Ethan closer together, the boys become a wedge in their relationship, as Ethan is unable to share with Barb a secret that has haunted him since childhood. It’s not until Ethan takes Tommy and Sam on a biking trip in Italy that it becomes clear just how unusual the three of them are – and what it will take for Ethan to repair his marriage. I’m not going to say more and risk giving away the mind-blowing twist that changes everything in this charming and delightful novel.
The psychological tension that builds throughout Patricia Highsmith’s 1950 debut novel “Strangers on a Train” makes it a dramatic and gripping read. (The story was the inspiration for Alfred Hitchcock’s classic 1951 film of the same name.) Here we encounter Guy Haines and Charles Anthony Bruno, passengers on the same train. While Guy is a successful architect in the midst of a divorce, Bruno turns out to be a sadistic psychopath who manipulates Guy into swapping murders with him. “Some people are better off dead,” Bruno remarks, “like your wife and my father, for instance.” As Bruno carries out his twisted plan, Guy is trapped in Highsmith’s perilous world, where, under the right circumstances, anybody is capable of murder. Highsmith is a master of depicting the unsettling forces that tremble beneath the surface of everyday contemporary life. I was left feeling greatly relieved never to have run into someone like Bruno in mine.
“In Love: A Memoir of Love and Loss,” by Amy Bloom, is one of the most beautifully written and poignant books I have read, filled with love and grief and Bloom’s trademark wit and candor. Bloom began to notice changes in her husband, Brian, when he retired early from a new job he loved, withdrew from close friendships, and began talking mostly about the past. Their world was altered forever when an MRI confirmed what they could no longer ignore: Brian had Alzheimer’s disease. Forced to confront the truth of the diagnosis and its impact on their lives, Brian was determined to die on his feet, and Brian and Amy made the unimaginably difficult and painful decision to go to Dignitas, an organization based in Switzerland that empowers a person to end his own life with dignity and peace. Bloom sheds light on a part of life we so often shy away from discussing – its ending – in a multi-layered and wrenching way that will deeply touch every reader’s heart.
Mysteries: “A Nearly Normal Family,” by M. T. Edvardsson, had me madly flipping pages toward the end as I eagerly awaited the ending. Eighteen-year-old Stella Sandell, an ordinary teenager from an upstanding local family, stands accused of the brutal murder of a man almost fifteen years her senior. Her father, a pastor, and mother, a criminal defense attorney, find their moral compasses tested as the defend their daughter. This gripping psychological thriller asks the questions: How well to you know your own children? And how far would you go to protect them? As Stella says, “One person’s ignorance was another person’s power.” I’ve enjoyed all of Jane Harper’s engaging mysteries that so effectively evoke their Australian setting. In “Exiles,” at a busy festival site on a warm spring night, a baby lies alone in her stroller, her mother vanishing into the crowd. A year later federal investigator Aaron Falk joins a gathering of the mother’s friends and loved ones in the heart of south Australian wine country and begins to suspect this tight-knit group may be more fractured than it seems. The message in this psychological thriller: we see what we want to see. When I thought maybe I wouldn’t read another Louise Penny mystery because of the repetitive phrases and short paragraphs, I started “A World of Curiousities”and was hooked. As the villagers in Three Pines prepare for a special celebration, Armand Gamache and Jean-Guy Beauvoir find themselves increasingly worried because a young man and woman have reappeared in the Surete du Quebec investigators’ lives after many years. They were young when their troubled mother was murdered, leaving them damaged, and now they’re in Three Pines. To what end? Ultimately an old enemy is released into the Gamaches’ lives and into the very heart of Armand’s home, revealing puzzles within puzzles. So good. I loved being back in Greenland in “Girl in Ice,” by Erica Ferencik. Despite Valerie Chesterfield’s successful career as a linguist in dead Nordic languages (“Languages reveal what it is to be human. This desire to make ourselves understood is primal.”) she leads a sheltered life and languishes in the shadow of her twin brother, Andy, an accomplished climate scientist trained on a remote island off Greenland’s barren coast. But Andy is gone, having willfully ventured unprotected into minus 50-weather. When Wyatt, Andy’s fellow Arctic researcher, discovers a scientific impossibility, a young girl frozen in the ice who thaws out alive speaking a language no one understands, Val is his first call – and her frozen odyssey begins.
On May 14 Danny Westneat wrote a column in the Seattle Times headlined. “Books Unbanned: Beleaguered Librarians Push Back,” referencing his librarian mom, saying “I’m glad she’s not around to see this.” He’s referring to how librarians are increasingly being viewed in this country as criminals. There haven’t been this many book titles scrubbed from shelves and digital collections in as long as the American Library Association has been monitoring censorship, the ALA says. But now the book-banning movement has pivoted to going after the librarians themselves. Texas has a slew of bills at its state Capitol that targets librarians and there’s a growing Republican movement to simply skip all this drama and cancel libraries entirely, with one Louisiana U. S. Representative calling them “liberal grooming centers.” In reaction, Seattle’s librarians recently started up a pushback initiative called “Books Unbanned,” allowing anyone in the U.S., ages 13-26, to get a free Seattle Public Library card and check out anything in the library’s digital collection. Do read the column, and let’s all pay attention to what a 16-year-old from Ohio wrote to our library – “My school library has been entirely cleared out and locked in a closet . . . I just want to read.”