Archive | Book Reviews

Book Review: The Home Place by Carrie La Seur

Today’s review by yours truly | @ArielLawhon

The Home PlaceWhat it’s about:

Carrie La Seur makes her remarkable debut with The Home Place, a mesmerizing, emotionally evocative, and atmospheric literary novel in the vein of The House Girl and A Land More Kind Than Home, in which a successful lawyer is pulled back into her troubled family’s life in rural Montana in the wake of her sister’s death.

The only Terrebonne who made it out, Alma thought she was done with Montana, with its bleak winters and stifling ways. But an unexpected call from the local police takes the successful lawyer back to her provincial hometown and pulls her into the family trouble she thought she’d left far behind: Her lying, party-loving sister, Vicky, is dead. Alma is told that a very drunk Vicky had wandered away from a party and died of exposure after a night in the brutal cold. But when Alma returns home to bury Vicky and see to her orphaned niece, she discovers that the death may not have been an accident.

The Home Place is a story of secrets that will not lie still, human bonds that will not break, and crippling memories that will not be silenced. It is a story of rural towns and runaways, of tensions corporate and racial, of childhood trauma and adolescent betrayal, and of the guilt that even forgiveness cannot ease. Most of all, this is a story of the place we carry in us always: home.

The First Paragraphs:

“The cold on a January night in Billings, Montana, is personal and spiritual. It knows your weaknesses. It communicates with your fears. If you have a god, this cold pulls a veil between you and your deity. It gets you alone in a place where it can work at you. If you are white, especially from the old families, the cold speaks to you of being isolated and undefended on the infinite homestead plains. It sound like wolves and reverberates like drums in all the hollow places where you wonder who you are and what you would do in extremis. In this cold, you understand at last that you are not brave at all.

If you’re Indian–a Crow or Cheyenne off the res maybe, a Shoshone, Hidatsa, Assiniboine, one of the humbled peoples of an unforgiving land–the cold will sound different, but still, it knows your name. It has no mercy for you no matter how long and intimate its relationship with your mothers and fathers. You of all people ought to know that it is a killer. How many of your relatives has it taken? More than wars and car crashes? Do your fingers and toes tingle in the cold because of some childhood frostbite, before you learned to cover up, or when the power company turned off the juice and your little back got pushed up hard against the cold rock of winter?”

Why I loved it:

For me everything about this book came down to sisters. I have three of them, you see. And one of them could be the blueprint for Alma’s younger, troubled, tragic sister Vicky. It’s a wondrous and terrible thing to love someone you can’t control. Especially when that someone is determined to burn through life at their own pace and on their own terms. So reading this novel was visceral for me. I understood why Alma wanted to leave her old life behind (I did the same thing after all) and I also understood how easily and completely she could be pulled back into it (this is a recurring theme in my own life).

THE HOME PLACE is written with the sharp, clean prose of a literary heavyweight and paced with compelling must-know-more suspense. It is exactly the sort of novel I adore. Smart. Searing. Redemptive. I read this novel quickly (that’s always my litmus test) and thought about the characters when I wasn’t with them. I loved the contemplation of home: why we leave it, why we yearn for it, and why, ultimately, we always return. And try as I might, I was not able to solve the mystery of Vicky’s death in advance. A truly well done mystery.

It’s been a long time since I found myself missing the jagged peaks and sagebrush mesas of my own home. But after reading this novel I found myself wrestling with the sudden urge to return to New Mexico, a place not so very different than the Billings, Montana of Carrie La Seur’s beautiful debut novel.

About Ariel Lawhon

Ariel Lawhon is co-founder of the popular online book club, She Reads, a novelist, blogger, and life-long reader. She lives in the rolling hills outside Nashville, Tennessee with her husband and four young sons (aka The Wild Rumpus). Her novel, THE WIFE THE MAID AND THE MISTRESS, will be published in January 2014 by Doubleday. Ariel believes that Story is the shortest distance to the human heart.

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Book Review: ALIAS HOOK by Lisa Jensen

Today’s post by yours truly | @ArielLawhon

Every child knows how the story ends. The wicked pirate captain is flung overboard, caught in the jaws of the monster crocodile who drags him down to a watery grave. But it was not yet my time to die. It’s my fate to be trapped here forever, in a nightmare of childhood fancy, with that infernal, eternal boy.

AliasHookSometimes a book finds you at exactly the right moment. Or, in my case, the right season of life. My particular life is filled with a tribe of wild little boys. I call them the Wild Rumpus and they might not be as unruly as Peter Pan and his Lost Boys, but still, the resemblance is startling some days. So it was not a stretch for me to read Lisa Jensen’s new rendering of the classic Peter Pan and see that the children themselves could be the villains. Pernicious, selfish little creatures hell bent on destruction. And really, what a brilliant treatment of the story: Neverland painted very much like Lord of the Flies.

I loved this book. And not just because the premise is genius or because the writing is clean and clever, but because Lisa Jensen has taken a beloved children’s story and so completely turned it on its ear. Captain Hook as the underdog? Captain Hook falling in love? Captain Hook helpless against a pack of dirty, ragged, flying boys? Yes please!

The truth of childhood is that little boys dance a fine line between wonder and wickedness. I suppose little girls do as well–I just have no experience on that front. But boys? Yes. As my mother says: boys are like dogs, they do things in packs they would never do by themselves. And in ALIAS HOOK, the pack of little boys led by Peter Pan is violent, vengeful, and not a little bit scary. Captain Hook himself is no saint. But neither is he the storybook villain we’ve been led to believe. He’s complicated and charming and two hundred years (or more, who really knows in the timeless world of Neverland) into a purgatory specially designed to torment him.

Then a fully grown woman appears in Neverland against the specific orders of Peter Pan and she not only sees the humanity in our good Captain Hook but enables him to see it as well. This is not a fairy tale for children but my goodness, what a joy it was for this adult to read. After finishing the final pages I climbed out of bed to check on my children, to tuck them in one last time, and offer a prayer of gratitude that Neverland is not a real place after all.

But then again, that’s exactly what adults are supposed to believe.

ALIAS HOOK doesn’t release until July 8th but you can add it to your Goodreads list or preorder it now. You won’t be sorry either way.

About the book:

Meet Captain James Benjamin Hook, a witty, educated Restoration-era privateer cursed to play villain to a pack of malicious little boys in a pointless war that never ends. But everything changes when Stella Parrish, a forbidden grown woman, dreams her way to the Neverland in defiance of Pan’s rules. From the glamour of the Fairy Revels, to the secret ceremonies of the First Tribes, to the mysterious underwater temple beneath the Mermaid Lagoon, the magical forces of the Neverland open up for Stella as they never have for Hook. And in the pirate captain himself, she begins to see someone far more complex than the storybook villain. 

With Stella’s knowledge of folk and fairy tales, she might be Hook’s last chance for redemption and release if they can break his curse before Pan and his warrior boys hunt her down and drag Hook back to their neverending game. Alias Hook by Lisa Jensen is a beautifully and romantically written adult fairy tale perfect for fans of Gregory Maguire and Paula Brackston.

About Ariel Lawhon

Ariel Lawhon is co-founder of the popular online book club, She Reads, a novelist, blogger, and life-long reader. She lives in the rolling hills outside Nashville, Tennessee with her husband and four young sons (aka The Wild Rumpus). Her novel, THE WIFE THE MAID AND THE MISTRESS, will be published in January 2014 by Doubleday. Ariel believes that Story is the shortest distance to the human heart.

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Book Review: Tapestry Of Fortunes by Elizabeth Berg

Today’s post by She Reads co-founder, Marybeth Whalen | @MarybethWhalen
***

Elizabeth Berg

I have a long-held love for author Elizabeth Berg’s novels. So when I heard that she had a new book coming out, I was more than a little excited. I was so happy to get an early copy and hopeful that her new book, Tapestry of Fortunes, would live up to my expectations.

In my opinion, Berg has a gift for several things: well-developed characters, realistic women’s relationships portrayed on the page, and a way to weave in life’s little details that add a poetic element to her prose. She has long captivated me with her writing and, I’m happy to report, she did it again with this newest book.
One warning I will issue. I finished this book on a plane, seated next to a total stranger. When the tears started rolling down my cheeks as the book ended, I had a hard time hiding my emotional breakdown from this man. I saw him cast sidelong glances at me more than once but, thankfully, he never asked. I’m sure he was afraid to.  So if you’re looking for a story that will captivate your heart this spring, check out Tapestry of Fortunes.
Here’s a bit about the story to pique your interest:
Cecilia Ross is a motivational speaker who encourages others to change their lives for the better. Why can’t she take her own advice? Still reeling from the death of her best friend, and freshly aware of the need to live more fully now, Cece realizes that she has to make a move—all the portentous signs seem to point in that direction.  She downsizes her life, sells her suburban Minnesota home and lets go of many of her possessions. She moves into a beautiful old house in Saint Paul, complete with a garden, chef’s kitchen, and three housemates: Lise, the home’s owner and a divorced mother at odds with her twenty-year-old daughter; Joni, a top-notch sous chef at a first-rate restaurant with a grade A jerk of a boss; and Renie, the youngest and most mercurial of the group, who is trying to rectify a teenage mistake. These women embark on a journey together in an attempt to connect with parts of themselves long denied. For Cece, that means finding Dennis Halsinger. Despite being “the one who got away, ” Dennis has never been far from Cece’s thoughts.In this beautifully written novel, leaving home brings revelations, reunions, and unexpected turns that affirm the inner truths of women’s lives. “Maybe Freud didn’t know the answer to what women want, but Elizabeth Berg certainly does, ” said  USA Today.  Elizabeth Berg has crafted a novel rich in understanding of women’s longings, loves, and abiding friendships, which weave together into a tapestry of fortunes that connects us all.

About Marybeth Whalen

Marybeth Whalen is the co-founder of She Reads, mother of six, and life-long reader. She is also the author of two novels with a third out in July: The Mailbox, She Makes It Look Easy, and The Guest Book.

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Audio Book Review: Love, Anthony by Lisa Genova

Last night at 1:00 am I finished listening to Love, Anthony on audio. I had been listening to it in my car as I drove around doing errands but I was working on a project indoors and decided to bring the cd’s inside so I could play them while I worked. My computer worked fine to play the cd on and pulled double duty after I finished my project and turned to Pinterest. I pinned away as the story progressed. An enjoyable Sunday afternoon elapsed as I steadily worked away and Debra Messing read a story to me. The words pleasant and cozy come to mind.

A few thoughts on this particular audio book:

Debra Messing was a delightful narrator. I searched to see if she’d done any other books but alas, she has not. Here’s hoping she does in the future. I honestly think her voice made the book better.

This was my first Lisa Genova book. Known for her extensive knowledge of anything neurological related, she’s made a name for herself with her books about a woman struggling with alzheimers (Still Alice) and a woman struggling with the loss of awareness on her left side (Left Neglected).  That I knew. What I didn’t know was that she humanizes those rather clinical diagnoses– delving into the  range of emotions that come with these afflictions. She explores the way neurological impairments affect our relationships and self image, our outlook for the future and our interpretation of the past.

Or at least that is what she did  with Love, Anthony, the story of two women who are inexplicably linked by a dead boy who had autism. One woman is his mother.  The other  is a woman who spotted him on  a  Nantucket beach and was forever changed by this brief encounter. Both women are dealing with major changes and loss in their lives and learning to cope, each in her own way. The way that  these two women’s lives come together is part of the story… and the reason why I was up until 1:00  am. I wanted to see how Genova was going to “bring it on home.”

And speaking of home, that was the other element about this story that I wanted to note. The setting of Nantucket is a vital part of this story. The isolation of the residents in the dead of winter. The pecking order of this established  place steeped in history. The exhilaration combined with chaos that comes with the dawn of summer– and the arrival of tourists. The way the place defines both the locals and the visitors spoke to me and drew me further into the story.

The question that threads through the story is “Why was Anthony here?” How could this brief, limited life have meaning? And I’ll be honest, for most of the book I didn’t know the answer to that question. But Genova did and I’m glad she revealed it to us. If you have been touched by autism I highly recommend this book. Or if you just enjoy a story about women’s relationships set in an intriguing place, this might be a good fit for you. And if Debra Messing reads it to you, all the better.

About Marybeth Whalen

Marybeth Whalen is the co-founder of She Reads, mother of six, and life-long reader. She is also the author of two novels with a third out in July: The Mailbox, She Makes It Look Easy, and The Guest Book.

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Review: Me Before You by Jojo Moyes

I loved Me Before You  by Jojo Moyes. It was the first book I read this year and, while there were parts that reduced me to a sniveling mess, I felt it was a  perfect book to start off the year. When I read Swapna Krishna’s review of the book, I begged her to let us share it with you here, because she said how I felt about the book exactly. It is reprinted here with her permission.  

Summary:

When the café where Louisa Clark works announces it’s going to close, she’s bereft. After all, she knows her parents depend on her paycheck to help out at home and she has no idea what she’s going to do next. An opportunity falls into her lap, though, with Will Traynor. Will was an attractive risk seeker who was taken down by the most mundane of things: a car. Now, he’s paralyzed and his mother believes that he needs someone to keep him company and lift his spirits. At first, Louisa is bewildered by Will’s bad attitude, but as she gets to know him, she comes to see him for who he is, beyond the wheelchair.

Review:

Me Before You is a difficult book to describe, and an even harder one to review, simply because it is just that good. It seems like the simplest of storylines: young girl is hired to care for guy in wheelchair. But this book is so much more than that. It has heart and soul and wit; it’s a novel that will have you laughing with joy, but also sobbing with everything you have in you. Moyes manages to make the reader incredibly emotionally involved with both the characters and the story without manipulating them. As a result, this is an honest, down to earth read that floored me.

Moyes has created realistic and sympathetic characters in Me Before You. Louisa is charming and wonderful. She’s not perfect, mind you, but she’s oh-so-easy to fall in love with. Will is more difficult at the beginning; he’s prickly, and it’s clear he (for good reason) resents his circumstances. It’s wonderful to see Louisa have an effect on him, but also to see how Will changes Louisa. It’s a unique relationship that really does come about organically.

Jojo Moyes

There are definitely aspects of the storyline of Me Before You that are predictable. But there are also surprises around every corner, both large and small. It’s the type of novel that’s full of small delights, little things that you don’t expect that are just so much fun. But it’s also a difficult novel to read at times. Will’s disability is gut-wrenchingly difficult. There’s a darker side to this book, to be sure. It has all the messiness of real life, and whether you like it or not, things aren’t always easy and tidy.

One of the many things that Me Before You does extremely well is show just how difficult it is for a person in a wheelchair. Just going out to lunch is a huge ordeal for Will; it’s understandable why he’d just rather stay at home. Every time he goes out, he’s reminded of his accident, of what he’s lost, because it’s so hard for him to accomplish anything and he’s so dependent on others. It’s so dejecting and sad, and Moyes portrays the psychological side effects of this vividly.

Me Before You is, quite simply, one of the best books I’ve ever read. It has so much depth and wisdom within its pages. Read it for book club, read it on a plane, read it on a dark and stormy night or by the pool — you can read it anywhere, but make sure you read it.

Other books by Jojo Moyes:

The Last Letter from Your Lover

Swapna is a freelance writer, editor, and book reviewer and is an avid reader. She has been blogging at S. Krishna’s Books since 2008. When not reading and blogging, she enjoys watching TV, exploring craft beer, traveling, and spending time with her husband.

Twitter:  @SKrishna  |  Swapna on Facebook

About Marybeth Whalen

Marybeth Whalen is the co-founder of She Reads, mother of six, and life-long reader. She is also the author of two novels with a third out in July: The Mailbox, She Makes It Look Easy, and The Guest Book.

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Foodie Fiction Roundup

Today’s post by our own Marybeth Whalen | @MarybethWhalen

At our house the Food Network is a popular viewing choice. Whether my daughter is watching people battle over cupcakes or we’re all gathering to watch  a DVR’ed episode of Pioneer Woman, we are clearly a family who finds food entertaining. And I know we’re not alone. Food tv, food magazines, the abundance of Pinterest pins devoted to food, and even foodie fiction allow us all to immerse ourselves in our love for food, wonderful food.  Today at She Reads, we  thought we’d share a little roundup of some recent novels that revolve around characters who are somehow culinarily connected.

When In Doubt, Add Butter  by Beth Harbison

From the New York Times bestselling author of Shoe Addicts Anonymous and Always Something There to Remind Me, When in Doubt, Add Butter by Beth Harbison a delicious new novel about the search for true love and all the ingredients that go into it.

As far as Gemma is concerned, her days of dating are over. In fact, it’s her job to cater other peoples’ dates, and that’s just fine by her. At thirty-seven, she has her own business, working as a private chef, and her life feels full and secure. She’s got six steady clients that keep her hands full.

There’s Lex, the fussy but fabulous department store owner who loves Oysters Rockefeller and 1950s comfort food; Willa, who needs to lose weight under doctor’s orders but still believes butter makes everything better; a colorful family who may or may not be part of the Russian mob; an überwealthy Georgetown family; the picture-perfect Van Houghtens, whose matriarch is “allergic to everything “; and finally, a man she calls “Mr. Tuesday, ” whom she has never met but who she is strangely drawn to.

For Gemma, cooking is predictable. Recipes are certain. Use good ingredients, follow the directions, and you are assured success. Life, on the other hand, is full of variables. So when Gemma’s takes an unexpected turn on a road she always thought was straight and narrow, she must face her past and move on in ways she never would have imagined. Because sometimes in life, all you need is a little hope, a lot of courage, and—oh yes—butter.

How To Eat A Cupcake by Meg Donohue

Free-spirited Annie Quintana and sophisticated Julia St. Clair come from two different worlds. Yet, as the daughter of the St. Clairs’ housekeeper, Annie grew up in Julia’s San Francisco mansion and they forged a bond that only two little girls oblivious to class differences could—until a life-altering betrayal destroyed their friendship.

A decade later, Annie bakes to fill the void left in her heart by her mother’s death, and a painful secret jeopardizes Julia’s engagement to the man she loves. A chance reunion prompts the unlikely duo to open a cupcakery, but when a mysterious saboteur opens up old wounds, they must finally face the truth about their past or risk losing everything.

Off The Menu by Stacey Ballis

As the executive culinary assistant to celebrity Chicago chef Patrick Conlon, Alana Ostermann works behind the scenes—and that’s just the way she likes it. But with developing recipes for Patrick’s cookbooks, training his sous chefs, picking out the perfect birthday gifts for his ex-mother-in-law, and dealing with the fallout from his romantic escapades, she barely has a personal life, much less time to spend with her combo platter of a mutt, Dumpling.

Then a fluke online connection brings her RJ, a transplant from Tennessee, who adds some Southern spice to her life. Suddenly Alana’s priorities shift, and Patrick—and Dumpling—find themselves facing a rival for her time and affection. With RJ in the mix, and some serious decisions to make about her personal and professional future, Alana must discover the perfect balance of work and play, money and meaning, to bring it all to the table—one delicious dish at a time…

How Lucky You Are by Kristyn Kusek Lewis

In the tradition of Emily Giffin and Marisa de los Santos, How Lucky You Are is an engaging and moving novel about three women struggling to keep their longstanding friendship alive. Waverly, who’s always been the group’s anchor, runs a cozy bakery but worries each month about her mounting debt. Kate is married to a man who’s on track to be the next governor of Virginia, but the larger questions brewing in their future are unsettling her. Stay-at-home mom Amy has a perfect life on paper, but as the horrific secret she’s keeping from her friends threatens to reveal itself, she panics.

As life’s pressures build all around them, Waverly knows she has some big decisions to make. In doing so, she will discover that the lines between loyalty and betrayal can become blurred, happy endings aren’t always clear-cut, and sometimes you have to risk everything to gain the life you deserve.

The Sweetness of Forgetting by Kristin Harmel

At thirty-six , Hope McKenna-Smith is no stranger to bad news. She lost her mother to cancer, her husband left her for a twenty-two year old, and her bank account is nearly depleted. Her own dreams of becoming a lawyer long gone, she’s running a failing family bakery on Cape Cod and raising a troubled preteen.

Now, Hope’s beloved French-born grandmother Mamie, who wowed the Cape with her fabulous pastries for more than fifty years, is drifting away into a haze of Alzheimer’s. But in a rare moment of clarity, Mamie realizes that unless she tells Hope about the past, the secrets she has held on to for so many years will soon be lost forever. Tantalizingly, she reveals mysterious snippets of a tragic history in Paris. And then, arming her with a scrawled list of names, she sends Hope to France to uncover a seventy-year-old mystery.

Hope’s emotional journey takes her through the bakeries of Paris and three religious traditions, all guided by Mamie’s fairy tales and the sweet tastes of home. As Hope pieces together her family’s history, she finds horrific Holocaust stories mixed with powerful testimonies of her family’s will to survive in a world gone mad. And to reunite two lovers torn apart by terror, all she’ll need is a dash of courage, and the belief that God exists everywhere, even in cake. . . .

About Marybeth Whalen

Marybeth Whalen is the co-founder of She Reads, mother of six, and life-long reader. She is also the author of two novels with a third out in July: The Mailbox, She Makes It Look Easy, and The Guest Book.

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Review: Shine Shine Shine by Lydia Netzer

Today’s review by our own Marybeth Whalen | @MarybethWhalen

SHINE SHINE SHINE by Lydia Netzer

When Maxon met Sunny, he was seven years, four months, and eighteen-days old. Or, he was 2693 rotations of the earth old. Maxon was different. Sunny was different. They were different together.

Now, twenty years later, they are married, and Sunny wants, more than anything, to be “normal. ” She’s got the housewife thing down perfectly, but Maxon, a genius engineer, is on a NASA mission to the moon,  programming robots for a new colony.  Once they were  two outcasts who found unlikely love in each other: a wondrous, strange relationship formed from urgent desire for connection. But now they’re parents to an autistic son. And Sunny is pregnant again. And her mother is dying in the hospital.  Their marriage is  on the brink of imploding, and they’re at each other’s throats with blame and fear. What exactly has gone wrong?

Sunny wishes Maxon would turn the rocket around and come straight-the-hell home.

When  an accident in space puts the mission in peril, everything Sunny and Maxon have built hangs in the balance. Dark secrets, long-forgotten murders, and a blond wig all come tumbling to the light. And nothing will ever be the same.…

A debut of singular power and intelligence,  Shine Shine Shine  is a unique  love story, an adventure between worlds, and a stunning novel of love, death, and what it means to be human.

Marybeth’s review:

Shine, Shine, Shine is a quirky book. I’m not going to lie. The main character is bald. Her son is autistic. Her husband has Asperger’s, builds robots and is in space throughout the novel. I took one look at the premise and thought “That is SO not for me.” I don’t do quirky. I mean, I am normal so I prefer to read about normal people.

But am I really normal? Are any of us, really?

That’s kind of what this book is about– how even the quirkiest of us deal with normal human emotions and the most normal of us deal with some pretty freaky emotions and somehow– in this giant soup kettle of people and problems– we are all pretty similar. I read the first scene where Sunny, the main character who is wearing a wig and pretending to be just as normal as her two best friends, is in her kitchen going through her life. She’s fought hard for normalcy, even at the expense of her relationships with others. She’s worked hard to put the past behind her, to fit. And I realized that Sunny, though bald and married to an astronaut, is not that different from me, who has hair and is married to a salesman whose feet are firmly planted on the ground. I realized perhaps I could learn something from her.

If you like quirky– or even if you don’t– I would highly recommend reading this novel so that you too can meet Sunny and her family and neighbors and can read the rich writing that Lydia Netzer brings to this tale. I can guarantee you it won’t be like any other book you’ve ever read. But sometimes it’s good to depart from the normal.

Here’s what a few others are saying about this wholly original novel:

“Netzer’s debut is a delightfully unique love story and a resounding paean to individuality.”  

- People Magazine (People Pick)

“Over the moon with a metaphysical spin. Heart-tugging…Nicely unpredictable…Extraordinary.”  

- Janet Maslin, The New York Times

“Lydia Netzer’s luminous debut novel concerns what lies beneath society’s pretty surfaces.”  

— The Boston Globe

Side note: we’ll be profiling Lydia Netzer in the near future and learning more about this remarkable book so stay tuned! It’s a post you don’t want to miss.

About Ariel Lawhon

Ariel Lawhon is co-founder of the popular online book club, She Reads, a novelist, blogger, and life-long reader. She lives in the rolling hills outside Nashville, Tennessee with her husband and four young sons (aka The Wild Rumpus). Her novel, THE WIFE THE MAID AND THE MISTRESS, will be published in January 2014 by Doubleday. Ariel believes that Story is the shortest distance to the human heart.

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Literary First Love – Beatriz Williams

Beatriz Williams

Today’s post by novelist Beatriz Williams| @bcwilliamsbooks

At the end of my sixth grade year, my mother shattered her leg in a riding accident, and my father’s parents drove out from Colorado to help. Both of them were near-perfect relics of the British empire–my grandmother had been raised in Kobe and my grandfather in St. Petersburg; they had met in Calcutta, where my father was born–and both were exceptionally well-read.

While my mother convalesced in a body cast, I spent the summer sheltered in my grandparents’ caravan, talking with my grandmother as the Seattle rain drummed the roof. Hers was not a maternal nature. She used to say that she disliked babies, and only took interest in children when they were old enough to ask questions. She was slender and wiry and razor-sharp; she took her daily walkies, drank her daily Scotch, and liked dogs more than people. I looked at those black-and-white photos of her at the Bengal Club in the thirties and marveled; she was so glamorous in her gowns and dark lipstick, whereas the Flo I knew never wore dresses and kept her peppery hair cropped against her skull. Her only concession to beauty was her afternoon Noxzema wash. She would bend over the sink and splash her face clean, and I’d ask her about friends, about boys, about books. She would always answer me seriously, as she would address a grownup.

At some point that summer, probably to get a little peace and quiet, she gave me her ancient omnibus edition of Baroness Orczy. “I loved the Scarlet Pimpernel when I was a girl. A la lanterne!” she said, in her prewar accent, and her eyes gleamed.

I ran off with my treasure and devoured it all. I’d read obsessively, promiscuously, from an early age: Little House and the Oz books, the Black Stallion and Anne of Green Gables, all of them falling to pieces in my bookshelf. But this was something more grown-up. Sir Percy Blakeney was no Gilbert Blythe; he was a dashing adventurer, an intrepid spy and master of disguise, posing flawlessly as a dopey English aristocrat. He was also man enough to choose the cleverest woman in Europe for his bride. How I swooned when Marguerite tried to win him back on a dawn-lit terrace; he resisted, but once she left, “he knelt down upon the terrace steps, and in the very madness of his love he kissed one by one the places where her small foot had trodden, and the stone balustrade there, where her tiny hand had rested last.”

But I am an unbridled romantic. What the devil was Sir Percy Blakeney doing in my British grandmother’s stiff upper heart? She, whom the Tokyo earthquake had rattled not at all; she, who had gone trekking in Sikkim at my grandfather’s side and smelled of Scotch and Noxzema? I never thought to ask her.

I wish I could say I still have that old copy of Orczy, but I loaned it out to a friend and never saw it again. Since then, I’ve known and loved thousands of other books and characters, but The Scarlet Pimpernel was my first passionate literary love. My grandmother and I, maybe we’re not so far apart after all.

OVERSEAS is Beatriz Williams’ mesmerizing debut novel. I read it in two giant gulps and loved every word of it. Sweeping and grand and everything a love story should be. And the good news? We’re giving away two signed copies today! Leave a comment on this post if you’d like to be entered to win a copy.

Over time. Over distance. Overseas.

When twenty-something Wall Street analyst Kate Wilson attracts the notice of the legendary Julian Laurence at a business meeting, no one’s more surprised than she is. Julian’s relentless energy and his extraordinary intellect electrify her, but she’s baffled by his sudden interest. Why would this handsome British billionaire—Manhattan’s most eligible bachelor—pursue a pretty but bookish young banker who hasn’t had a boyfriend since college?

The answer is beyond imagining . . . at least at first. Kate and Julian’s story may have begun not in the moneyed world of twenty-first-century Manhattan but in France during World War I, when a mysterious American woman emerged from the shadows of the Western Front to save the life of Captain Julian Laurence Ashford, a celebrated war poet and infantry officer.

Now, in modern-day New York, Kate and Julian must protect themselves from the secrets of the past, and trust in a true love that transcends time and space.

About Ariel Lawhon

Ariel Lawhon is co-founder of the popular online book club, She Reads, a novelist, blogger, and life-long reader. She lives in the rolling hills outside Nashville, Tennessee with her husband and four young sons (aka The Wild Rumpus). Her novel, THE WIFE THE MAID AND THE MISTRESS, will be published in January 2014 by Doubleday. Ariel believes that Story is the shortest distance to the human heart.

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Summer Reading Roundup

Summer is synoymous with F-U-N to me. Which means the books I want in my beach or pool bag must be fun. Maybe delving into deep issues, maybe not. Maybe written by old favorites or maybe by a new, promising talent. Maybe set at the beach, or maybe on the steamy streets of a city I’ve always wanted to visit. Whatever they’re about, whoever they’re by, they need to transport me just the same as if I’d gone on an actual vacation. Below are some books that fit that bill:

The Unfinished Work Of Elizabeth D by Nichole Bernier. How well do we know our friends? Even our best friends? And what if we lost our best friend, only to discover she kept detailed journals all her life– journals that reveal secrets about her? Would our view of her stay the same? And how would we make peace with the woman we knew and the woman we didn’t? This book answers those questions in a fun summer setting.

Summer vacation on Great Rock Island was supposed to be a restorative time for Kate, who’d lost her close friend Elizabeth in a sudden accident. But when she inherits a trunk of Elizabeth’s journals, they reveal a woman far different than the cheerful wife and mother Kate thought she knew.

The complicated portrait of Elizabeth—her troubled upbringing, and her route to marriage and motherhood—makes Kate question not just their friendship, but her own deepest beliefs about loyalty and honesty at a period of uncertainty in her own marriage.

The more Kate reads, the more she learns the complicated truth of who Elizabeth really was, and rethinks her own choices as a wife, mother, and professional, and the legacy she herself would want to leave behind. When an unfamiliar man’s name appears in the pages, Kate realizes the extent of what she didn’t know about her friend, including where she was really going on the day she died.

Set in the anxious summer after the September 11th attacks, this story of two women—their friendship, their marriages, private ambitions and fears—considers the aspects of ourselves we show and those we conceal, and the repercussions of our choices.

The Cottage At Glass Beach by Heather Barbieri. A man who may or may not be a selkie? This book and the mystery surrounding it totally tapped into my love of mermaids and all things mysterious about the sea. Add some ruminating on marriage and motherhood and you’ve got a fine literary experience to mix with the sea air and salt water.

Married to the youngest attorney general in Massachusetts state history, Nora Cunningham is a picture-perfect political wife and a doting mother. But her carefully constructed life falls to pieces when she, along with the rest of the world, learns of the infidelity of her husband, Malcolm.

Humiliated and hounded by the press, Nora packs up her daughters—Annie, seven; and Ella, twelve—and takes refuge on Burke’s Island, a craggy spit of land off the coast of Maine. Settled by Irish immigrants, the island is a place where superstition and magic are carried on the ocean winds, and wishes and dreams wash ashore with the changing tides.

Nora spent her first five years on the island but has not been back to the remote community for decades—not since that long ago summer when her mother disappeared at sea. One night while sitting alone on Glass Beach below the cottage where she spent her childhood, Nora succumbs to grief, her tears flowing into the ocean. Days later she finds an enigmatic fisherman named Owen Kavanagh shipwrecked on the rocks nearby. Is he, as her aunt’s friend Polly suggests, a selkie—a mythical being of island legend—summoned by her heartbreak, or simply someone who, like Nora, is trying to find his way in the wake of his own personal struggles?

Just as she begins to regain her balance, her daughters embark on a reckless odyssey of their own—a journey that will force Nora to find the courage to chart her own course and finally face the truth about her marriage, her mother, and her long-buried past.

Monarch Beach by Anita Hughes. This one went in my pool bag as soon as it arrived. It was delicious!

Anita Hughes’ Monarch Beach is an absorbing debut novel about one woman’s journey back to happiness after an affair splinters her perfect marriage and life—what it means to be loved, betrayed and to love again.

When Amanda Blick, a young mother and kindhearted San Francisco heiress, finds her gorgeous French chef husband wrapped around his sous-chef, she knows she must flee her life in order to rebuild it. The opportunity falls into her lap when her (very lovable) mother suggests Amanda and her young son, Max, spend the summer with her at the St. Regis Resort in Laguna Beach. With the waves right outside her windows and nothing more to worry about than finding the next relaxing thing to do, Amanda should be having the time of her life—and escaping the drama. But instead, she finds herself faced with a kind, older divorcee who showers her with attention… and she discovers that the road to healing is never simple. This is the sometimes funny, sometimes bitter, but always moving story about the mistakes and discoveries a woman makes when her perfect world is turned upside down.

The Garden Of Happy Endings by Barbara O’Neal. A woman in a crisis of faith. A community garden that draws people together. A relationship between sisters that features all the nuances of complications you might expect. For those who aren’t into all the beachy kind of books, this one offers a nice alternative– especially if you have a green thumb, or, like me, just wish you had one.

After tragedy shatters her small community in Seattle, the Reverend Elsa Montgomery has a crisis of faith. Returning to her hometown of Pueblo, Colorado, she seeks work in a local soup kitchen. Preparing nourishing meals for folks in need, she keeps her hands busy while her heart searches for understanding.

Meanwhile, her sister, Tamsin, as pretty and colorful as Elsa is unadorned and steadfast, finds her perfect life shattered when she learns that her financier husband is a criminal. Enduring shock and humiliation as her beautiful house and possessions are seized, the woman who had everything now has nothing but the clothes on her back.

But when the going gets tough, the tough get growing. A community garden in the poorest, roughest part of town becomes a lifeline. Creating a place of hope and sustenance opens Elsa and Tamsin to the renewing power of rich earth, sunshine, and the warm cleansing rain of tears. While Elsa finds her heart blooming in the care of a rugged landscaper, Tamsin discovers the joy of losing herself in the act of giving—and both women discover that with time and care, happy endings flourish.

So Far Away by Meg Mitchell Moore. I read her book The Arrivals last summer poolside. If you didn’t read that one, it’s out in paperback this summer and worth picking up. I’m looking forward to this one and believe Meg Mitchell Moore to be a true talent. This premise appeals to me perhaps even more than The Arrivals!

Thirteen-year-old Natalie Gallagher is trying to escape: from her parents’ ugly divorce, and from the vicious cyber-bullying of her former best friend. Adrift, confused, she is a girl trying to find her way in a world that seems to either neglect or despise her. Her salvation arrives in an unlikely form: Bridget O’Connell, an Irish maid working for a wealthy Boston family. The catch? Bridget lives only in the pages of a dusty old 1920s diary Natalie unearthed in her mother’s basement. But the life she describes is as troubling – and mysterious – as the one Natalie is trying to navigate herself, almost a century later.

I am writing this down because this is my story. There were only ever two people who knew my secret, and both are gone before me.

Who was Bridget, and what became of her?  

Natalie escapes into the diary, eager to unlock its secrets, and reluctantly accepts the help of library archivist Kathleen Lynch, a widow with her own painful secret: she’s estranged from her only daughter. Kathleen sees in Natalie traces of the daughter she has lost, and in Bridget, another spirited young woman at risk.

What could an Irish immigrant domestic servant from the 1920s teach them both? As the troubles of a very modern world close in around them, and Natalie’s torments at school escalate, the faded pages of Bridget’s journal unite the lonely girl and the unhappy widow – and might even change their lives forever.

Disclosure of Material Connection: Some of the links in this post are “affiliate links. ” This means if you click on the link and purchase the book, She Reads will receive a very small commission. These commissions help us pay for the site and the services we offer.  

About Marybeth Whalen

Marybeth Whalen is the co-founder of She Reads, mother of six, and life-long reader. She is also the author of two novels with a third out in July: The Mailbox, She Makes It Look Easy, and The Guest Book.

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Book Review: The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott by Kelly O’Conner McNees

Author Kelly O'Conner McNees

In this interesting and enigmatic fictional account, the reader embarks on a journey through the life of one of the world’s most loved authors, Louisa May Alcott. After landing in a spot of financial difficulty, the Alcott family has just moved into a deserted cabin owned by a friend in Walpole, New Hampshire. The family, which consists of four girls and their parents, are no strangers to domestic disturbance and poverty, due to Mr. Alcott’s refusal to engage himself in gainful employment. Though his family disagrees, Mr. Alcott feels it is his duty to shun all material pleasures, focusing instead on his philosophical interests, a behavior which Louisa in particular finds abhorrent.

 

Hardcover Edition

As the family becomes immersed in their new surroundings, Louisa meets the local merchant’s son, Joesph Singer, who immediately takes a curious interest in her. Louisa’s only dream is to escape her family and move to Boston, where she hopes to have success as an author; so this new attention by Joseph Singer is not only unwelcome but strongly rejected by her, a fact that doesn’t deter the young Mr. Singer in the least. Louisa grows more adamant and resistant to the charms of the young man but finds herself curiously drawn to his bright mind and eager advances. When Joesph finally begins to get past Louisa’s prickly exterior, the two find themselves enamored of each other and ready to take their relationship to the next level. But then an unforeseen hinge drops a door on the couple’s new-found happiness: Joesph may not be free to promise himself to the woman he loves. Louisa, for her part, struggles mightily between her desires for Joseph and her dream of a new life as a successful writer in Boston. The young lovers find themselves in the midst of a confusing and troubling set of events that threatens to overtake their dreams of the future. In this touching and reverent tale, the life of Louisa May Alcott is re-spun and re-imagined into a tale of deep love and disappointing heartbreak.

Paperback Edition

I got unexpectedly caught up in this book and think that the author did a wonderful job of making her characters well rounded and sympathetic individuals. The story had a lot of immediacy, which is funny to think about, considering it occurred such a long time ago. The author admits that the love story portrayed here is a work of fiction, as are other aspects of the tale, but questionable gaps in the record of Alcott’s life may lead the reader to believe that this story may not be all that far-fetched. I definitely think that those readers who have enjoyed Alcott’s body of work would do well to pick up this book, and for those who have not read anything by the author, do not fear! There’s enough grist in this story for it to stand alone beautifully.

 

About Heather Figearo

Heather Figearo is an avid reader, book collector, and freelance reviewer who reviews fiction for She Reads and on her own site, Raging Bibliomania.

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