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The best books of August

Donna Chavez is a book reviewer for Publishers Weekly and the American Library Association's Booklist. She is also a freelance writer and a writing coach who has numerous publishing credits, including the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun Tim...

Literary last of summer

Summer is about over. The kids are heading back to school. Forget that long to-do list of chores you were putting off doing until fall. While the weather is still warm take a little time to curl up in a hammock on the porch with a cool drink and a good book. This month offers an enticing variety to choose from.

The Prosecution of George W Bush for Murder by Vincent Bugliosi

Nonfiction, 3.5/5

Literary last of summer

You might remember Bugliosi as co-author of the book about the Manson Family, Helter Skelter. He also was an extremely successful Los Angeles District Attorney. Now he's retired and has turned his prosecutorial guns on none other than GW Bush. He contends there is sufficient evidence to convict the president of the murder of the over 4,000 US military men and women who have died in the Iraqi War. Not involuntary manslaughter, not second degree murder, but the big one, Murder One.

I'm no expert (far from it) but the first half of his book lays out a pretty convincing case that he says can be used by any prosecuting attorney in any county in the US that lost a resident in the war. Of course, such a charge could not be brought against a sitting president, but he says once the man is out of office he becomes fair game for indictment. There is a lot that is interesting about this book besides the obvious chutzpah of a highly respected lawyer bringing the president up on murder charges. What's also interesting is the fact that the book rose to the upper reaches of both the New York Timesand Amazon bestseller lists without the help or hype of any mainstream media attention. Nobody on any radio or TV networks interviewed him. All sales were the result of word-of-mouth and internet publicity. Sadly the last part of the book deteriorates into a diatribe on the sorry state the US has fallen to and sounds more like the ravings of an old man griping about how bad the world has become. It just doesn't live up to the standard of the first part of the book so I knocked off points. Whether you agree with Bugliosi or not, the way he constructs his case makes for fascinating reading.

Finding Nouf by Zoe Ferraris

Fiction, 4/5

Literary last of summerWhen young Saudi Arabian bride-to-be Nouf Ash-Shrawi goes missing just a short while before her wedding day one of her brothers enlists the aid of his friend, Bedouin-trained desert guide Nayir al-Sharqi. He wants Nayir to search for the girl and bring her home. However, they suspect Nouf is dead. In which case Nayir is charged with discreetly letting the family know what happened. Better him than the police because when he does find her body it looks like Nouf was involved in activities that might disgrace her strict Islamic family.

But there is more going on here than meets the eye so Nayir continues to pursue the truth about what happened to the young woman. Along the way he gets an education about the fairer sex and we learn a lot about Muslim culture from an author (Ferraris is an American who spent some time living in Saudi Arabia) who understands and respects it. From the moment Nayir meets assistant medical examiner Katya Hijazi she challenges his fears and preconceptions as they uncover the facts surrounding Nouf's death and express the intricacies of a culture that unfortunately has become synonymous with terrorism for many Americans.

Finding Noufis a rare combination of entertainment and information wrapped up in one great read.

Love the One You're With by Emily Giffin

Fiction, 4/5

Literary last of summerAfter years of dating Mr Wrong Ellen Dempsey finally meets and marries Andy, the man she feels is Mr Right. He is attentive, sensitive, loving, respectful and an all 'round good catch. Then wouldn't you know it? A few months later she runs into Leo, a moody, inconsiderate writer she once dated and whose memory has haunted her since the day he dumped her.

Dead certain she is completely over him she agrees to meet him for coffee. Yeah, right. The old chemistry flares almost immediately and before you can say "infidelity" Ellen is trying to rationalize meeting and phoning Leo behind Andy's back. To make matters worse this time Leo is confessing that he never wanted to leave her, in fact once tried unsuccessfully to get back together with her, and now he wants no one but her. I thought this was an interesting girl-meets-two-boys story that addresses the complex issues people face as they struggle to decide what they really want in life and a life partner.

Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are by Rob Walker

Nonfiction, 4/5

Literary last of summerMaybe because I've been watching a lot of the AMC series Mad Men (caught up with dvd's of season one and watching season two) I picked up this book about marketing and the psychology of branding.

Walker, a seasoned consumer columnist, explains the back stories behind how items such as Timberland Boots, iPods, Red Bull and others rose to popularity almost in spite of themselves. He also examines the logic (or illogic) people use when they make a purchasing decision and how most people, when asked, feel they are immune to marketing.

Putting a whole new twist on the 80/20 rule he notes that 80% of consumers feel they are smarter than 80% of consumers. Also, do we buy certain things because they reflect who we are or do we buy certain items because we're hoping people will think we reflect what they stand for? Hmm. Roll that question around in your head for a while. I enjoyed this book partly because I think I'm a smarter consumer than the other 80 percent. Mostly I enjoyed it because in my heart of hearts I know I'm just as much a sucker for brand identification as the next person.

Tethered by Amy MacKinnon

Fiction, 5/5

Literary last of summerUndertaker Clara Marsh works in a Brockton, MA funeral home as assistant to the funeral director. Right from the start it is clear that Clara is an unusual heroine. Not merely a loner she seems to have become a pathological recluse able to relate only to the dead bodies she preps for burial and the flowers in her lavish greenhouse. Living people pose a problem for Clara. However, when a neglected little girl named Trecie visits the funeral home and becomes the focus of a police investigation into a child pornography ring, real life, as is its wont, threatens to shatter Clara's world.

Since she's the only one who has spoken to Trecie Clara is key to helping the cops locate the pornographers. She is immediately torn between trying to maintain her impossibly isolated life and stepping up to help the abused child.

The beauty of Tetheredis two-fold. Not only does MacKinnon write haunting prose she has created a character/narrator who keeps us guessing about her reliability as a witness. Tethered grabbed my attention and held it as I raced to the end to learn the outcome of this off beat story.

One Bad Apple: An Orchard Mystery by Sheila Connolly

Fiction 3/5

Literary last of summerWhen Boston banker Meg Corey finds herself between jobs she agrees to tackle rehabbing the 200-year-old New England home her mother inherited and wants to sell. The plan is that Meg will bring the old place, and its apple orchard, up to 21st Century standards, sell it then move on with her life. The problem that confounds that plan and may derail her whole life is the dead body of her ex-boyfriend found floating in Meg's brand new septic tank. Local cops believe she is the main person of interest but the hunky local plumber who installed the tank isn't far from suspicion either.

The whole issue is further complicated because the town's deal with a big time developer, who plans to turn Meg's orchard into a commercial property and revitalize their sagging economy, hangs in the balance. Given that the murder plus Meg's opposition to selling the orchard could ruin the arrangement, she has no choice but to turn detective and figure out who killed her ex. One Bad Appleis Mystery Fiction Lite that would make a cool autumn afternoon whiz by while waiting for the apple muffins (recipe included at the end of the book) to come out of the oven.

Poisoned Profits: The Toxic Assault on Our Children by Philip Shabecoff and Alice Shabecoff

Nonfiction, 4/5

Literary last of summerOne way to get somebody's attention is to tell them their children are in danger. It's a tactic the Shabecoffs must have figured would snap Americans into action against, you guessed it, the chemical industry and our lackadaisical government. However, when I read that one in three American children suffers from some type of chronic disease and that childhood cancer rates have risen 67% in the last fifty years it got my attention. I wondered how, in a post-Rachel Carson world, in a war-on-cancer world, could so many children be so sick? You hear everyday how we're winning this war on cancer, but it is the caught-early and aggressively-treated cancers we're beating. Not the ones that afflict our children; that sneak up on them and become life-threatening before you know they're there.

Sure, lifestyle choices can account for some of this. But the Shabecoffs make solid, if not airtight, cases against the vast numbers of untested chemicals that pollute our air, water and food. Other reviews have criticized the authors for not being convincing enough, for not being scientific enough to make their case. But since testing most chemicals for toxicity can take decades and then testing different combinations of chemicals (because there is a virtual stew of chemicals in any given food/product) can take even longer, chemical companies don't test and the government hesitates to mandate testing. In the meantime we and our children become guinea pigs.

Donna's rating system:

5 = An extraordinary book! I will keep it to read again and again!
4.5 = This book is either very clever, highly creative or brings new information to the table. I'm recommending it to my friends.
4 = This book accomplishes all the author seems to have intended. (I "get" it.)
3.5 = This book held my interest regardless of topic/genre.
3 = I enjoyed reading and/or I learned something from this book
2.5 = I could have easily put this book down and forgotten about it.
2 = This book is either poorly written or seems underdeveloped, like an out-of-focus photo. (I don't "get" it.)
1 = Don't bother.

Donna Chavez is a member of National Book Critics Circle and a prepublication book reviewer for Publishers Weekly, the American Library Association's Booklist and www.bookbrowse.com. She is also a freelance writer and a writing coach. She has numerous publishing credits, including the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun Times, Glancer and Shore magazines. Visit her website http://www.thewritecoach.com.

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