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Fall's best books

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...

The politics of reading

Fall is a time for politics, identity-concealing costumes (oh, maybe those two always go together) and longer, chillier nights when curling up with a good book -- an escapist-type novel, a thriller or something that makes you think -- is a good idea.

The politics of readingSupreme Courtship by Christopher Buckley, fiction audiobook, 4.5/5: Get this: The US president has to appoint someone to the Supreme Court and keeps getting his picks shot down by a rival senator who aspires to the White House. This is Supreme Courtship.

So the president, in a fit of pique, decides to throw a curve ball to the Judicial Committee by nominating a wisecrackin', gun totin' beauty queen, TV judge to the highest court in the country. Well, that's just crazy. Right?

Okay, maybe not so crazy as it seemed to Buckley when he wrote the book. Of course, for fictional purposes, she makes the cut, and the result is both scary (for its resemblance to real-life politics in these zany times) and hilarious. Buckley's tongue-in-cheek humor may not appeal to everyone, but for me it produced plenty of laughs. Actress Anne Heche's narration is spot on as well, if you decide to listen to the audio edition.

Tethered by Amy MacKinnon, novel, 5/5: Clara Marsh works in a funeral home as an undertaker, and the assistant to the funeral director, Linus Bartholomew, is truly creepy. Or is she the sketchy one? Certainly for most of us, her job is creepy. That's made graphically clear in the first pages of Tethered. But it doesn't bother her. Indeed, she feels really at home with cadavers. More comfortable, even, than she feels with live people. That's what makes her seem so much creepier. The woman feels more sentiment for a dead child she prepped for burial several years ago than for a living child who may be in an abusive situation -- one Clara can change, if she wants. But there's more to Clara. She keeps a lush, verdant greenhouse that is her passion and her refuge. She's had a difficult childhood that got really bad after her mother was killed in a car accident and Clara went to live with her Bible-thumping, judgmental grandmother. The whole tone of MacKinnon's superbly crafted book is dark, mysterious and complex. It will leave you with lots to ponder.

The politics of readingGun Work by David J Schow, pulp fiction, 4.5/5: When Carl Ledbetter's wife is kidnapped in Mexico City, he calls on the only man he thinks can help: A guy the Mexicans call el hombre de las armas -- the gunman, Barney. Although Barney would just as soon stay out of it, he feels duty bound because Carl saved his life in Iraq.

Despite serious misgivings, Barney devises a plan and, sure enough, when they go to make the exchange -- cash for wife -- it all goes terribly wrong. Before he knows what hit him, Barney ends up beaten, shot, nearly drowned and left for dead.

With the help of some locals, he's nursed back to health and goes out, locked and loaded for revenge. Schow lets out all the stops, strafing page after page with enough high-caliber action to delight any Kevlar-clad pulp fiction fan. Gun Work is hardly work at all.

The Irregulars: Roald Dahl and the British Spy Ring in Wartime Washington by Jennet Conant, nonfiction, 5/5: One of the things I love about books is that they introduce me to things I never thought about before.

For example, before picking up The Irregulars, a terrific book, I had always assumed that all spies operated basically as adaptations of James Bond: You know, creeping around behind enemy lines to pick up information and take it back to the allies.

The politics of readingIt never occurred to me that, in wartime, allies spy on each other to either gain information on strategies, motives etc., or to disseminate information along informal channels. It also never occurred to me that Roald Dahl had any other occupation than children's book author. Turns out he and a number of other British -- including James Bond creator Ian Fleming -- were enlisted as spies during WWII.

Their job was twofold. Before the US entered the war, they were supposed to spread propaganda that would shake Americans out of their isolationist lethargy and come to the aid of Great Britain in their battle with Germany. Once the US entered the war, however, they were expected to bring information back to Churchill about America's motives and post-war intentions. This is one good read for all it reveals about the inner workings of governments and highly placed individuals -- so many whose names are familiar -- during wartime.

The politics of readingNo Escape by Shannon K Butcher, romantic thriller, 3.5/5: After six of her former childhood friends commit suicide within a short period, Isabelle Carson seems to be the only one who smells a rat, and she fears that the lives of others might be at risk, too. Because the police are satisfied that the deaths are all suicides, she reconnects with Grant Kent, another of the ill-fated foster kids who once shared the home of child molester Edgar Lavine, for support.

Because Lavine is long dead, he can't be behind these deaths. So Grant and Isabelle set out to end-run the police by finding out just who is. It all becomes a race against time and the unknown with narrow escapes and near misses and, of course, blossoming love between Isabelle and Grant. The plot of No Escape may be predictable, but Butcher's flair for characterization ramps up the interest factor.

The politics of readingAnti-cancer: A New Way of Life by David Servan-Schreiber, nonfiction, 3.5/5: Servan-Schreiber, clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and co-founder of Doctors Without Borders, is a 15-year, two-time brain cancer survivor who believes he has discovered the secrets to beating the Big C. He explains it all in Anti-Cancer: A New Way of Life. 

We've heard many of what he calls anticancer practices before, but he puts together a laundry list of environmental, dietary and emotional adjustments one can make in one's life to mitigate suspected carcinogenic influences.

Of course, as a physician, he doesn't suggest these practices alone as the end-all and be-all to treat and/or prevent cancer. He makes it very clear that a person must also rely upon conventional medical interventions such as surgery, chemo and radiotherapy as well.

What he proposes -- such as eating more cruciferous vegetables and dark-colored fruits, getting regular exercise and taking up yoga -- doesn't seem like it can hurt. 

Honestly, who knows? It might even help bolster the efficacy of traditional cancer treatments.

The politics of readingThe Blue Cotton Gown: A Midwife's Memoir by Patricia Harman, memoir, 3.5/5: Nurse-midwife Harman is a medical professional who spends more than the current average of four minutes with each patient.

In fact, she remembers the names of many of her patients (and their children) and takes a personal interest in their lives.

Maybe that's one reason she and her ob-gyn husband are having a hard time staving off what seems to be the inevitable bankruptcy of their small West Virginia practice.

Her memoir – a combination of her story and those of some of her patients -- is touchingly intimate and candid.

Coldhearted by Beverly Barton, romantic suspense, 4/5: Georgia Senator Dan Price's murder leaves a multitude of viable suspects – not the least of whom is his beautiful trophy wife, Jordan, who has a history of losing husbands and friends in questionable fatalities.

But the culprit also could be any one of the cast of quirky characters -- Jordan's friends and family -- who hang around the governor's mansion and rely on him for support. It's all there for private investigator Rick Carson to sort through.

The politics of readingEven as he finds himself falling in love with Jordan, however, he can't seem to discover any evidence that she didn't do the dirty deed. The senator was killed with her gun, and she was the last person to see him alive. Of course, Barton knows how to build both the suspense and the romance to a fever pitch in Coldhearted.

My rating system for books is:
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.

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