Debbie Stone and Gini Cunningham
Debbie: When I sat down to write this best of 2023 list, I wondered if Gini would be choosing books that she thinks are the best written or, like me, the ones she enjoyed the most. The ones that brought me joy and put a smile on my face, made me outraged, gave me a good scare, or just left me pondering the meaning of life.
I give you The Songbook of Benny Lament by Amy Harmon published in 2021, but I read it in 2023. You should read it too. This reads like a memoir - a fabulous one. It takes place in 1969 with mobsters, music, Benny, a songwriter being interviewed on a famous radio show, and Esther, a singer. He’s white- she’s black. The contrasts don’t end there and neither does their history. Best quote: “If you want to see change, you have to show them what it looks like.”
Saturday Night at the Lakeside Supper Club by J. Ryan Stradal is Midwest nostalgia at its best. The family drama spans three generations in the restaurant business. Heartbreak! Hope! Food! Brandy Old-Fashioneds and relish trays remind me of growing up in the late 60s/early 70s. It’s a charming character-driven story. Best quote: “The decor would be old-fashioned, the drinks would be strong, and the dining experience would evoke beloved memories, all for a pretty decent price.”
Homecoming by Kate Morten is a good mystery. This is a dual time-line story where an unemployed journalist goes to visit her grandmother and gets caught up in a decades-old murder investigation in Australia. Nominated for best mystery and thriller of 2023, it’s very satisfying. Grab your coffee, lemonade or whatever your poison is (poison? murder weapon?) Maybe. Curl up for a good weekend. Best quote: “For all that ‘home’ was considered a word of warmth and comfort; policemen knew better. Home is where the heart is, and the heart could be a dark and damaged place.”
Late Bloomers by Deepa Varadarajan is delightful. It is cute, sad ,and funny all at the same time; a dramady about an Indian/America family dealing with divorce and dysfunction. The story is told in four points-of-view from different family members as they muck their way to a new normal. Although dealing with hard themes, it’s infused with humor, just as life is. I recommend the audio version. Best quote: “I have a soft spot for underdogs. And late bloomers. You’ve told me a lot of things about yourself, so let me tell you something about me.”
And last, but not least, is Drowning by T.J. Newman is a summer blockbuster of a book. It is fast paced and suspenseful. From the book jacket: “Six minutes after takeoff, Flight 1421 crashes into the Pacific Ocean. During the evacuation, an engine explodes, and the plane is flooded. Those still alive are forced to close the doors — but it’s too late. The plane sinks to the bottom with twelve passengers trapped inside.” Will they survive? Will they make it out in one piece? Get the popcorn and find out! Best quote: “The life of a child is about firsts. The life of a parent is about lasts.”
Gini: Fortunately, I had decided to combine my favorite reads into categories: mysteries, biographies, and history, the latter which mesh together. If you want to learn about horses and racing Dick Frances leads the pack. Always a murder sprinkled with fresh equine knowledge, any book plays perfectly. As for quotes: “Are you speaking metaphorically, intellectually, financially, or socially?” when asked to come down to another’s level. If we understood how behind how someone spoke, wouldn’t the meaning take on new depths?
My biographies include Into the Light by Samuel Freedman based on the life of Hubert Humphrey: “Reasonable people were entirely capable of acting in morally unreasonable ways and rationalizing away their actions” referencing racism and religious bigotry. I had not realized Humphrey’s influence leading up to the Civil Rights movement. From there to Robert E. Lee: A Life by Allen G. Guelzo: “The smiling face of peace has been changed for the grim visage of war.”
The 272 by Rachel Swarns exposes story of the slaves who built Georgetown and then, when the University was complete, how families were split and shipped to merciless labor in the South. Too many quotes to write here, but I learned so much about the human belief in “might is right [especially when money lines the pocket].”
Girls and their Monsters by Audrey Clare Farley, details of the lives of the Gemain Quadruplets and how parental abuse leads to dysfunction and schizophrenia. “And as happened so often in psychiatric cases, they found a deeply wounded soul. Someone who seemed to have drawn a very bad lot and who had been tormented.” An abusive father, a frightened mother, the four girls live a far-from-reality existence, hidden, studied like animals, and pawns to early psychoanalysis. Very heavy.
On a lighter note, sort of, Mitch Albom’s The Stranger in the Lifeboat reminds me of Life of Pi. What is real, what is imagine, and how are we affected by the confusing phenomenon? “Maybe laughter after someone dies is the way we tell ourselves that they are still alive in some way. Or that we are.”