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April book reviews: Rants and raves – The Franciscan Conspiracy; Food, Sex and Salmonella; Blood Matters; Beautiful Boy

From Catholic Church conspiracies to law enforcement inadequacies — and from the human genome to food and sex (to say nothing of the tragedy of meth addiction), this month’s recommended reads are sure to inspire reflection, discussion and maybe even environmental conscientiousness.

On the lighter side is a glimpse at what it’s like to grow old gracefully. So, read! It’s easy to do and, even better, it’s not fattening!

JR Sack's latest compelsThe Franciscan Conspiracy by J. R. Sack, historical fiction, 4.5/5:

Who would have thought there could ever be an air of secrecy and conspiracy within the holy halls of the Catholic Church? Especially secrets surrounding the death and burial of one of its most revered saints, Francis of Assisi? As Conrad, one of the man’s faithful monks, finds out it isn’t just the body of the hallowed saint that’s shrouded in mystery. When a young monk-in-training shows up on Conrad’s doorstep with an encrypted letter from an old friend Conrad is forced to investigate and must venture outside his comfy hermit’s hovel. As he and his young companion – who turns out to be, surprise, a lovely young woman named Amata – traverse the depraved and treacherous world of 13th Century Italy they encounter thieves, killers, liars, cheats and worse. Their search for the truth behind the coded letter becomes a convoluted journey that puts both their lives in peril. Sack recreates the world of 13th Century Italy with skill, including some distasteful details I could’ve lived without. But overall I enjoyed this book. For a conspiracy book it’s pretty lightweight but as a historical novel I give it high marks.

It's a Lush Life if you can afford itLush Life by Richard Palmer, crime fiction, unabridged audio book, narrated by Bobby Cannavale, 4/5

By wasting no time plunging neck-deep into New York cops-and-robbers patois Palmer almost lost me. No kidding. I know I spent the first couple of chapters listening, and listening again, in attempts to decipher just what the heck everybody was saying. I’m not sure whether I got used to it or if he toned it down, but eventually it all made sense and a story began to emerge. On Manhattan’s Lower East Side writer and actor wannabe Eric Cash, Ike Marcus and another guy go out for a few drinks after they get off work at a local restaurant. As they’re making their drunken way home the trio is held up and when he mouths off to the attackers Ike is shot and killed. It all seems pretty cut and dried until NYPD Homicide Detective Matty Clark begins to suspect there’s more to the story than a simple hold-up. What’s great about this book is the way everyone — Cash, Clark, Marcus, his father and the kids from the neighborhood – works to mold his/her own reality using the same information. This would make a good book club read if only to discuss how each character’s reality suits their own particular view of the world.

Food, Sex and Salmonella: Why Our Food Is Making Us Sick by David Waltner-Toews, nonfiction, 4.5/5:

Is our food making us sick?Waltner-Toews is a Canadian ecosystem health specialist who probably figured linking food and sex in his book’s title would get our attention. It worked for me. Outspoken almost to a fault he insists that humans who live in Minnesota were never meant to eat fresh pineapple in January. That there’s a serious reason to stick with locally grown foods and the reason has to do with the rape of our planet’s ecosystem. Bluntly he says if we think “we can fornicate with the environment and not bear a cost” we have a lot to learn. And we are learning it the hard way, from acute food borne illnesses (salmonella) to chronic ones such as cancer. All are the unhappy consequences of promiscuous culinary tastes that force third world countries to satisfy our appetites despite grossly underpaid workers who are exposed to toxic pesticides and provided inferior bathroom facilities; to say nothing of the rampant deforestation and desertification of vast expanses of land. Read this at your own risk but do read it and think twice before you pick up that plastic container of fresh “winter” raspberries to top off your morning oatmeal.

A sad, but often experienced taleBeautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey Through His Son’s Meth Addiction by David Sheff, nonfiction, 4/5:

It’s part of every parent’s job description to question every single decision made about our kids. Whether it’s over selecting the right pre-school or banning sweets from the house, parents stress every choice. We make mistakes. It’s a given. Sheff is no different. He stressed over decisions affecting his son, Nic. Did he make mistakes? Probably a few; but most likely no single decision would have altered Nic’s course of addiction. In this seriously compelling memoir he shares his and Nic’s and the whole family’s torment as the teenager plunged ever deeper into lower levels of hell. The recent release of this book in paperback coincides with publication of Nic’s book, Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines, in which the kid – now clean and sober — tells the story from his point of view. Although I haven’t read Nic’s book, I imagine reading both would be interesting.

Forget the book club already!No! I Don’t Want to Join a Book Club by Virginia Ironside, fiction, 4/5:

British Baby Boomer (yes, they have Boomers in England, too) Marie Sharp is turning 60 and she’ll be darned if she’s going to role over and succumb to the gardening-and-book-club fever that seems to possess so many of her peers. Even though she’s retired she refuses to accept that old age is anything more than a state of mind. Yeah, she has the same aches and moans that everyone else her age has but she feels entitled to them even as she balks at the thought that she might need more exercise than she’s getting. In journal entries over the course of her 60th year Marie reveals her thoughts on life – notably: her life of a happily divorced grandmother-to-be, a life she’s happy to report is uncomplicated by romance, the life of a friend who puts in a stint as a cougar (dating a much younger man) and the life of a friend with terminal cancer. Despite her distaste for book clubs Marie is intelligent, witty, charming and enjoyable company.

Masha Gessen's incredible non-fictionBlood Matters: From Inherited Disease to Designer Babies, How the World and I Found Ourselves in the Future of the Gene by Masha Gessen, nonfiction, 4/5:

What if you took a medical test and were told that you possessed a gene mutation that predisposed you to both breast and ovarian cancer? What would you do? When 37-year-old Gessen learned this news she was naturally thrown into a moral and medical dilemma. Should she give up her plan to have another child by having her ovaries removed? Should she face the physical deformity of elective pre-emptive double mastectomy? Or, with a not-very-promising family history, should she play the odds and do nothing? In a world where information about the human genome promises so much – including designer medicines – what is the right decision? Whether you agree with her ultimate decision or not her report on the state of this budding new branch of medicine makes for fascinating reading.

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.

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. She has numerous publishing credits, including the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun Times, Glancer and Shore magazines. Visit her website

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