Bourke's Bookshelf: When the abnormal becomes normal

Books included in this month's reviews are "Days Like Smoke" by Jon Hassler, "Project Hail Mary" by Andy Weir, "The Alphabet Sisters" by Monica McInerney and the Stephanie Plum series by Janet Evanovich.

Books on a bookshelf
This month's books include "The Alphabet Sisters" by Monica McInerney, "Days like Smoke" by John Hassler and "Project Hail Mary" by Andy Weir.
Theresa Bourke / Brainerd Dispatch
Theresa Bourke headshot

Do you ever read a book that you just can’t get out of your head, even long after finishing the last page? That’s how this month’s reads made me feel, so I’m excited to pass these suggestions on.

‘Days Like Smoke’ by Jon Hassler

Jon Hassler is perhaps one of the most well-known Minnesota authors locally, as he taught at Brainerd Community College (now Central Lakes College) for a time and wrote novels based on his time growing up in various small towns in Minnesota, including Staples. His Book “A Green Journey” was turned into the 1990 TV movie “The Love She Sought” starring Angela Lansbury.

Days Like Smoke
"Days Like Smoke" by Jon Hassler
Theresa Bourke / Brainerd Dispatch

Hassler died in 2008, leaving behind an unfinished memoir detailing his childhood in Staples, Plainview and briefly Minneapolis. Friend and fellow Minnesota author Will Weaver polished up the manuscript and put on the finishing touches before publishing the book in 2021.

Born in 1933, Hassler grew up during the Great Depression and then World War II and writes about life during simpler times and some of the influential people, like his mom and grandfather, who helped get him where he needed to go in life. Those who have read any of Hassler’s novels would likely enjoy reading about where the inspiration for many of the characters and situations came from, as he writes about in “Days Like Smoke.” I’m not one of those people but have acquired quite the collection of Hassler’s novels, thanks to library book sales, and plan to fit in at least one of his novels this year.

‘Project Hail Mary’ by Andy Weir

I can’t say enough good things about this book, so I’m actually not going to say much at all.


Project Hail Mary
"Project Hail Mary" by Andy Weir

“Project Hail Mary” is a 2021 science fiction novel by Andy Weir. It begins with the main character waking up with amnesia of sorts, not remembering who or where he is. At the suggestion of my co-worker Kelly Humphrey, that’s all I knew about the book going in, and I’m going to make the same suggestion to anyone interested in reading it. Not knowing anything about the story makes it all the more thrilling, as you get to figure out what the heck is happening alongside the narrator. There’s a good dose of humor and something unexpected at every turn, right down to the very last page.

One more thing I will say is that “Project Hail Mary” has easily made its way near the top of my favorite books of all time, and sci-fi typically isn’t my go-to genre.

‘The Alphabet Sisters’ by Monica McInerney

Sisters Anna, Bett and Carrie Quinlan haven’t seen or spoken to one another in three years, not since Bett’s fiancé called off their wedding and announced he was in love with Carrie.

The Alphabet Sisters
"The Alphabet Sisters" by Monica McInerney
Theresa Bourke / Brainerd Dispatch

The rift has gone on for far too long, according to Lola, the girls’ eccentric, exuberant grandmother who decides to do what she does best: take things into her own hands and hatch a plan. Her 80th birthday party is the perfect ploy to get the sisters back under one roof in beautiful Clare Valley, Australia. They all begrudgingly comply, but the events that follow are something no one — not even the wise and seemingly all-knowing Lola — saw coming.

Reading this book felt like a warm, comforting hug. I was embedded into the Quinlan family and felt all their emotions alongside them, from 8-year-old great-granddaughter Ellen having nightmares about the worst day of her young life, to Lola shining like a bright, flamboyant star at her birthday party, to Anna, Bett and Carrie recounting childhood traumas and tribulations known only too well by those with sisters.

A review from the Sydney Morning Herald likened Monica McInerney’s writing to that of Maeve Binchy, one of my recent favorite authors. The comparison is apt. Both writers draw me into their worlds, where I lose myself and become engrossed in characters who feel all too real.

I’ll be adding more of McInerney’s works to my ever-growing to-be-read list.

Stephanie Plum series by Janet Evanovich

I finished off 2021 by diving into Janet Evanovich’s series that hilariously follows female bounty hunter Stephanie Plum. I knew immediately after reading “One for Money” that I was hooked.


"Three to Get Deadly" by Janet Evanovich
"Three to Get Deadly" by Janet Evanovich

I’ve decided to continue on with the 28-book series by listening to the audiobooks as a way to keep my mind busy while I’m driving, working out and doing chores.

I recently made it through the second, third and fourth books — “Two for the Dough,” “Three to Get Deadly” and “Four to Score.” Notice a pattern?

All were fantastically wild rides. Along with Stephanie’s hectic life, her feisty grandma and the always swoon-worthy Joe Morelli, there’s a sketchy funeral home director, missing caskets, a shady candy store owner, dangerous men in ski masks, a homicidal drag queen and a hair dye job gone horribly wrong.

Stephanie has easily become one of my favorite literary characters. She’s a strong female lead but still doesn’t quite have it all together at 30 years old, making her extremely relatable and realistic.

THERESA BOURKE may be reached at or 218-855-5860. Follow her on Twitter at .

Theresa Bourke started working at the Dispatch in July 2018, covering Brainerd city government and area education, including Brainerd Public Schools and Central Lakes College.
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