Book reviews: Notes from Neil

By Neil Rajala

Fourth of July Creek

Thursday, June 5 — This weekend is the Festival of the Arts in downtown Grand Rapids! The locals remember when it was the big downtown event of the year here, before the ArtPrize folks moved in. The locals also know that Festival is still a great weekend of art, performance and food - worth the drive from wherever you are. Here's what we're reading:


Smith Henderson

Another very strong contender for the best of 2014 lists. Mr. Henderson's new book is as compelling a read as I've encountered in some time. It's the most impressive debut novel since...well, I'm not really sure I can come up a comparison off the top of my head.

Pete Snow is a complex and unquestionably flawed man, and yet you root for him every step of the way. He lives alone in a cabin in the wilds of western Montana where he works as a social worker, seemingly the only person who cares about the abused and neglected kids in his district. A disdainful ex-wife, estranged daughter, outlaw brother and too-eager relationships with alcohol and questionable women complicate his life and frustrate his efforts to put his affairs into some kind of acceptable order. When a nearly feral teenaged boy wanders into his district and his life, Pete is led into barely navigable mountain country trying to connect with the boy's father, Jeremiah Pearl - End Times preacher and advocate - who becomes the target of an FBI manhunt. Of course, Pete is caught in the middle, and of course the rest of his life continues to crumble at the same time. The author's pitch-perfect use of local speech patterns, exciting storytelling and an impressive ability to create full-blooded, rich characters to care about, make a book for which you'll gladly give up some hours of sleep until you reach the end. kobo eBook

Dinah Fried

Book lovers, foodies and photography enthusiasts. Ms. Fried's intriguing new book will appeal to all three groups. And if you happen to be someone who fits into all three categories, you should already own this book.

The author uses food styling, imagination and more than a little humor to create her own vision of what some of the more famous meals and foods in literature would look like. She sets them in her tableaus in creative ways with fascinating little tidbits about the book, the author or the food itself. Does her version of the Mad Hatter's Tea Party match your imagination? Did you even know what watery gruel was while reading Oliver Twist? Did you have any desire to see it? My favorites are for the kid's books - Blueberries for Sal and Chicken Soup with Rice. I love both books and both foods. kobo eBook

Rick Reily

I first discovered Mr. Reilly when he had Sports Illustrated's final page all to himself. I'd quite often take the new issue and immediately flip to the end to have a laugh before reading the rest of the issue, and he very rarely disappointed.

A few years ago he moved to and ESPN the Magazine (the back page, of course) and continued to offer his scathingly funny (and occasionally very touching) view of the sports world. This new book is a collection of his best columns and articles since he made the move. An interesting grouping method - all of them arranged in categories beginning with the letter "F" - lets you read his takedowns of sports figures he doesn't like (Flaws), peruse the columns that caused a public backlash of some sort (Fights), or even Feel, that will likely give you some surprising new insights into stars with big hearts (it may even give you a reason to pause when you're about to make another Tim Tebow joke). But mostly what you'll do reading this book is laugh out loud, just like I've always done since his SI days.

I was so impressed by Fourth of July Creek it inspired the question for this week: What is your favorite debut novel? What author impressed you from the very first page of his or her career?

Until next week,


NeilNeil Rajala is Currently Director of Community & Business Services for Schuler Books, Neil's decade with the company has included the wearing of many different hats - and lots and lots of reading.