Thursday, July 30, 2015

What I've Been Reading: July 2015

Now is the time that my reading really feels like it's getting cranking--it's too hot to do much else. A good book, a tall glass of iced tea, and either enjoying the AC or hoping for a cool breeze in the evening or the early mornings. Yes, the dog days make for some great excuses to loll around and read--I will absolutely take advantage! Here's what I've been reading recently.

Blueprints, by Barbara Delinsky. I haven't read one of Delinsky's books in years, but I was intrigued by the plot of this one and picked it up. A mother-daughter team (mother Caroline is a carpenter, daughter Jamie is an architect) work together on a local public television show called Gut It!, featuring their handiwork on home renovation projects in the area. On her 56th birthday, Caroline is informed by the producers that she is going to be replaced as host by her daughter, because "viewers want a fresh look," leaving Caroline shocked and furious. Jamie is mortified to be put at odds with her mother, and very reluctant to accept the new role thrust upon her. Add family tragedy to the mix and nothing will ever be the same, for either of them. This is an easy read, a little uneven, but I was really hoping for more of the home renovation aspects, as I found that particularly interesting.

A God in Ruins, by Kate Atkinson. This very much not a sequel to Atkinson's hugely popular novel, Life After Life, but more of a companion volume. Where the first in the Todd family saga primarily featured Ursula Todd as she lived the beginning of the last century over and over, this second features brother Teddy and his experiences both during WWII in the Royal Air Force as a bomber pilot, but also long afterward with his wife, daughter and grandchildren--the book is their story as well. Fascinating, well-researched, deeply moving. I loved each of the deeply flawed characters. Bonus: the audio version is read by Alex Jennings, who has most recently been reading Jeffrey Archer's Clifton Chronicles. I highly recommend both versions.

Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline. I've been meaning to read this forever, since it came out four years ago. This is a love song to the children of the 1980s, for sure. In a dystopian 2044, life for most of Earth's humans takes place in virtual reality. Children go to school in virtual classrooms. Jobs are held in the OASIS realm, virtual credits and hard cash are interchangeable, even as the physical infrastructure decays around the millions who plug in. When James Halliday, child of the 80s and the creator of OASIS died years earlier, he left a clue, the first part to unlock a series of trials--the winner will inherit the creator's fortune, worth billions. But though there are thousands of dedicated people trying to puzzle out how to start the process, it is Wade Watts, a poverty-stricken orphan and devoted student of all things Halliday who deciphers the first clue. Then the race is on to stay ahead of the crowd who follows him, and the sinister corporation that wants to control the OASIS by reaching the final game first. This was fun, nostalgic, brilliant, and hugely entertaining--I highly recommend it. Of additional interest, Cline has just released a second novel, Armada. And Steven Spielberg just signed on to direct the film adaptation--expect to hear lots more about this in the coming months.

Dietland, by Sarai Walker. When I read that reviewers were calling this Bridget Jones meets Fight Club, I was more than a little intrigued. What I was met with was a compulsively readable, subversive novel about expectations, reality, and permission to be ourselves. Plum Kettle does her best not to be noticed, because when you're fat, to be noticed is to be judged, or mocked, or worse. She's counting down the days until her weight loss surgery, because once she's thin, her life can finally begin. Then she notices that she's being followed by a mysterious woman, and promptly falls down the rabbit hole known as Calliope House, a community of women who live their lives by their own terms and who challenge Plum to learn to do the same. It's only as she begins to come to terms with her own struggles that she realizes she's unwittingly become ensnared in a terrorist plot that is shaking the nation, with explosive consequences. I read this in two days--it is clever, wise-cracking and wise, and I thought it was amazing. Definitely recommended.

Pretty Is, by Maggie Mitchell. At 12, pretty and precocious Lois and Carly May were kidnapped and driven to a cabin in the Adirondacks, where they were held hostage for two months. As adults, each has reinvented herself as a way to cope with the repercussions of their time spent as captives together. Lois is a professor with an alter-ego, an author who has written a novelized version of what happened to them in the cabin so many years ago, a bestseller which will be turned into a movie. Carly May is now an actress...slated to play a role in the aforementioned movie. As circumstances draw the two women back together after years of silent suffering, it is to a conclusion that neither of them ever saw coming. Recommending this for suspense readers who want something a little off the beaten path. A great debut.

Those Girls, by Chevy Stevens. This is, in my humble opinion, the best of Stevens's novels since her debut, Still Missing (which I loved, by the way). With a rocky home life made worse when their mother dies, sisters Dani, Courtney and Jess stick together--working odd jobs to make ends meet, learning to cook and clean up and generally take care of themselves while their father disappears for weeks at a time. When they have to leave town after a bad situation gets worse, they have no idea that they've jumped straight into the fire, with little chance of escaping unscathed. Fast forward 17 years and they've started over, still trying to stick together, still haunted by their collective past. When one of them goes missing, it's up to the other two sisters to put the past to rest, for good, in order to save her and themselves. This has a lot of plot twists and narrative tension--I stayed up late and got up early to finish this one. Thriller readers really ought to check this out.

Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson. This is a re-read for me, as my book club is discussing it at our September meeting and I needed a refresher. And timely, as I read it concurrently with it's companion novel, A God in Ruins (see my review above). You can read my original review here.

Kitchens of the Great Midwest, by J. Ryan Stadal. This was in my Picks list for this month, and I was delighted to get my hands on a copy just a few days ago--I haven't been able to put it down since. When Lars Thorvald’s wife, Cynthia, falls in love with wine—and a dashing sommelier—he’s left to raise their baby, Eva, on his own. He’s determined to pass on his love of food to his daughter. As Eva grows, she finds her solace and salvation in the flavors of her native Minnesota. From Scandinavian lutefisk to hydroponic chocolate habaneros, each ingredient represents one part of Eva’s journey as she becomes the star chef behind a legendary and secretive pop-up supper club. Each chapter tells the story of a single dish and a character, exploring food in terms of community and identity. Full of bittersweet moments, joy, surprises, and missed opportunities, this is a novel that I recommend without reservation.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Meg's Picks: August 2015, part 2

Secondhand Souls, by Christopher Moore. In this sequel to Moore's bestselling 2006 novel A Dirty Job, something really strange is happening in the City by the Bay. People are dying, but their souls are not being collected. Someone—or something—is stealing them and no one knows where they are going, or why, but it has something to do with that big orange bridge. To get to the bottom of this abomination, a motley crew of heroes will band together: the seven-foot-tall death merchant Minty Fresh; retired policeman turned bookseller Alphonse Rivera; the Emperor of San Francisco and his dogs, Bummer and Lazarus; and Lily, the former Goth girl. Now if only they can get little Sophie to stop babbling about the coming battle for the very soul of humankind... Moore is disturbingly funny, and a great choice for readers who like more than a little irreverence with their humor. 

Best of Enemies, by Jen Lancaster. Lancaster is the queen of snarky memoirs, but she's only started sharing that snark in the form of fiction in the last few years, much to the delight of her fans. She's back with one such novel now, which is being hailed as "Bridesmaids meets Big Little Lies" in a novel told from alternating viewpoints of two women who define the term "frenemies." Kitty and Jack haven’t a single thing in common—except for Sarabeth Chandler, their mutual bestie. Sarabeth and Jack can be tomboys with the best of them, while Sarabeth can get her girly-girl on with Kitty. In fact, the three of them were college friends until the notorious incident when Jack accidentally hooked up with Kitty’s boyfriend… Yet both women drop everything and rush to Sarabeth’s side when they get the call that her fabulously wealthy husband has perished in a suspicious plane crash. To solve the mystery surrounding his death, Jack and Kitty must bury the hatchet and hit the road for a trip that just may bring them together—if it doesn’t kill them first.

Villa America, by Liza Klaussman. Klaussman, a former New York Times reporter, delighted readers with her 2012 novel, Tigers in Red Weather, and has now returned with a gorgeous novel set in the French Riviera during the 1920s in the midst of The Lost Generation. When Sara Wiborg and Gerald Murphy met and married, they set forth to create a beautiful world together-one that they couldn't find within the confines of society life in New York City. They packed up their children and moved to the South of France, where they immediately fell in with a group of expats, including Hemingway, Picasso, and Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald. On the coast of Antibes they built Villa America, a fragrant paradise where they invented summer on the Riviera for a group of bohemian artists and writers who became deeply entwined in each other's affairs.It was, for a while, a charmed life, but these were people who kept secrets, and who beneath the sparkling veneer were heartbreakingly human. When a tragic accident brings Owen, a young American aviator who fought in the Great War, to the south of France, he finds himself drawn into this flamboyant circle, and the Murphys find their world irrevocably, unexpectedly transformed.

The Race for Paris, by Meg Waite Clayton. Normandy, 1944. To cover the fighting in France, Jane, a reporter for the Nashville Banner, and Liv, an Associated Press photographer, have endured enormous danger and frustrating obstacles—including strict military regulations limiting what women correspondents can. Even so, Liv wants more. Encouraged by her husband, the editor of a New York newspaper, she’s determined to be the first photographer to reach Paris with the Allies, and capture its freedom from the Nazis. However, her Commanding Officer has other ideas about the role of women in the press corps. To fulfill her ambitions, Liv must go AWOL. She persuades Jane to join her, and the two women find a guardian angel in Fletcher, a British military photographer who reluctantly agrees to escort them. As they race for Paris across the perilous French countryside, Liv, Jane, and Fletcher forge an indelible emotional bond that will transform them and reverberate long after the war is over. Fantastic for fans of novels like All the Light We Cannot See or Life After Life.

Two Across, by Jeffrey Bartsch. Though their mothers have big plans for them-Stanley will become a senator, Vera a mathematics professor-neither wants to follow these pre-determined paths. So Stanley hatches a scheme to marry Vera in a sham wedding for the cash gifts, hoping they will enable him to pursue his one true love: crossword puzzle construction. In enlisting Vera to marry him, though, he neglects one variable: she's secretly in love with him, which makes their counterfeit ceremony an exercise in misery for her. Realizing the truth only after she's moved away and cut him out of her life, Stanley tries to atone for his mistakes and win her back. But he's unable to find her, until one day he comes across a puzzle whose clues make him think it could only have been created by Vera. Intrigued, he plays along, communicating back to her via his own gridded clues. But will they connect again before it's all too late? I'm recommending this to fans of unconventional romances, like The Rosie Project.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Meg's Picks: August 2015, part 1

Some months, I feel like I'm grasping for enough titles of special interest to share with readers. This is not one of those months!

We Never Asked For Wings, by Vanessa Diffenbaugh. I shared this earlier in the year as one of the summer preview titles, and I'm still really excited about it. Diffenbaugh is the author of the 2011 bestselling novel The Language of Flowers, which has been a particular favorite of book clubs for the last few years. For fourteen years, Letty Espinosa has worked three jobs around San Francisco to make ends meet while her mother raised her children. But now Letty’s parents are returning to Mexico, and Letty must step up and become a mother for the first time in her life. Being billed as a novel of hope and hard choices, this new novel is sure to be a reader favorite--book clubs in particular should take note.

The Dust That Falls From Dreams, by Louis De Bernieres. If De Bernieres's name looks familiar, it's with good reason: he also authored bestseller Corelli's Mandolin. He returns now with a powerfully moving new novel about a British family whose lives and loves are indelibly shaped by the horrors of World War I and the hopes for its aftermath. In the brief golden years of the Edwardian era the McCosh sisters—Christabel, Ottilie, Rosie and Sophie—grow up in an idyllic household in the countryside south of London. On one side, their neighbors are the proper Pendennis family, recently arrived from Baltimore, whose close-in-age boys—Sidney, Albert and Ashbridge—shake their father’s hand at breakfast and address him as “sir.” On the other side is the Pitt family: a “resolutely French” mother, a former navy captain father, and two brothers, Archie and Daniel, who are clearly “going to grow up into a pair of daredevils and adventurers.” In childhood this band is inseparable, but the days of careless camaraderie are brought to an abrupt halt by the outbreak of The Great War, in which everyone will play a part.
The Night Sister, by Jennifer McMahon.  Once the thriving attraction of rural Vermont, the Tower Motel now stands in disrepair, alive only in the memories of Amy, Piper, and Piper's kid sister, Margot. The three played there as girls until the day that their games uncovered something dark and twisted in the motel's past, something that ruined their friendship forever. Now adults, Piper and Margot have tried to forget what they found that fateful summer, but their lives are upended when Piper receives a panicked midnight call from Margot, with news of a horrific crime for which Amy stands accused. Suddenly, Margot and Piper are forced to relive the time that they found the suitcase that once belonged to Silvie Slater, the aunt that Amy claimed had run away to Hollywood to live out her dream of becoming Hitchcock's next blonde bombshell leading lady. As Margot and Piper investigate, a cleverly woven plot unfolds—revealing the story of Sylvie and Rose, two other sisters who lived at the motel during its 1950s heyday. Each believed the other to be something truly monstrous, but only one carries the secret that would haunt the generations to come. McMahon's previous novel, The Winter People, was a New York Times bestseller, so thriller readers just might want to check this one out.

Coming of Age at the End of Days, by Alice LaPlante. LaPlante is on fire. She debuted with the bestselling Turn of Mind. She followed up with the incredibly popular A Circle of Wives. So I'd be remiss if I didn't mention her new novel, which is being billed as less psychological thriller and more intense psychological study. When do-it-her-way teenager Anna, depressed and vulnerable, falls for the new boy next door, it must be a turning point, right? Well, yes. Except the boy's family is part of an extremist religion, and Anna is finding this attractive, too. Can she be rescued from a situation that is getting increasingly more dangerous? 

The Fall of Princes, by Robert Goolrick. Goolrick's debut novel, A Reliable Wife, remains one of my favorite books of all time. Here, 1980s Manhattan shimmers like the mirage it was, as money, power, and invincibility seduce a group of young Wall Street turks. Together they reach the pinnacle, achieving the kind of wealth that grants them access to anything--and anyone--they want. Until, one by one, they fall. Evocative of novels like Bonfire of the Vanities and The Wolf of Wall Street, Goolrick paints an authentic portrait of an era, tense and stylish, perfectly mixing adrenaline and melancholy.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Reading Ahead: August 2015, part 4

Historical fiction? Check. Mysteries? Check. Several soon to be best sellers that you should add to your reading list right now? Check!

The Marriage of Opposites, by Alice Hoffman. In the tradition of The Museum of Extraordinary Things and The Dovekeepers, Hoffman brings readers another extraordinary woman's story, this time, that of the woman who would be the mother of Camille Pissarro, Father of Impressionism. Growing up on idyllic St. Thomas in the early 1800s, Rachel dreams of life in faraway Paris. Rachel’s mother, a pillar of their small refugee community of Jews who escaped the Inquisition, has never forgiven her daughter for being a difficult girl who refuses to live by the rules. Growing up, Rachel’s salvation is their maid Adelle’s belief in her strengths, and her deep, life-long friendship with Jestine, Adelle’s daughter. But Rachel’s life is not her own. She is married off to a widower with three children to save her father’s business. When her husband dies suddenly and his handsome, much younger nephew, Frédérick, arrives from France to settle the estate, Rachel seizes her own life story, beginning a defiant, passionate love affair that sparks a scandal that affects all of her family, including her favorite son, who will become one of the greatest artists of France. I adore Hoffman's work, and am eagerly anticipating this one!

The Taming of the Queen, by Philippa Gregory. Gregory, who has written about all of Henry VIII's queens, has at last come to the last of them. Kateryn Parr, a thirty-year-old widow in a secret affair with a new lover, has no choice when a man old enough to be her father who has buried four wives—King Henry VIII—commands her to marry him. Kateryn has no doubt about the danger she faces: the previous queen lasted sixteen months, the one before barely half a year. But Henry adores his new bride and Kateryn’s trust in him grows as she unites the royal family, creates a radical study circle at the heart of the court, and rules the kingdom as Regent. But is this enough to keep her safe?

Candy Corn Murder, by Leslie Meier. A sure sign that even in the full heat of summer, pumpkin-spice lattes are just around the corner? A fall-themed cozy, brimming with sweets, goblins, pumpkins...and murder. Local reporter Lucy Stone is covering Tinker Cove's annual Giant Pumpkin Fest, only to find herself with some major sleuthing to do when her husband's best friend turns up dead, and her husband Bill is at the top of the suspect list. (This is twenty-second in the fan favorite series. If you're new to it and want to start at the beginning, Book One is Mistletoe Murder.)

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Reading Ahead: August 2015, part 3

Publishers know all about your plans for long, lazy August days at the pool or beach, and have planned accordingly. Here are some great beach reads to round out the glory days of summer.

Silver Linings, by Debbie Macomber. Macomber's bestselling Rose Harbor series has been warming hearts for years. In this latest, readers find that since opening the Rose Harbor Inn, Jo Marie Rose has grown close to her handyman, Mark Taylor. Jo Marie and Mark are good friends—and are becoming something more—yet he still won’t reveal anything about his past. When Mark tells her that he’s moving out of town, Jo Marie is baffled. Just when she is starting to open herself up again to love, she feels once more that she is losing the man she cares about. And as she discovers the secret behind Mark’s decision to leave, she welcomes two visitors also seeking their own answers.

Starlight on Willow Lake, by Susan Wiggs. In the eleventh entry of Wiggs's Lakeshore Chronicles (which started with Summer at Willow Lake), caregiver Faith McCallum arrives at the enchanted lakeside estate of Avalon's renowned Bellamy family, intent on rebuilding her shattered life and giving her two daughters a chance at a better future. But she faces a formidable challenge in the form of her stubborn and difficult new employer, Alice Bellamy. While Faith proves a worthy match for her sharp-tongued client, she often finds herself at a loss for words in the presence of Mason Bellamy—Alice's charismatic son, who clearly longs to escape the family mansion and return to his fast-paced, exciting life in Manhattan…and his beautiful, jet-setting fiancée.

Who Do You Love, by Jennifer Weiner. Rachel Blum and Andy Landis are just eight years old when they meet one night in an ER waiting room. Born with a congenital heart defect, Rachel is a veteran of hospitals, and she’s intrigued by the boy who shows up alone with a broken arm. He tells her his name. She tells him a story. After Andy’s taken back to a doctor and Rachel’s sent back to her bed, they think they’ll never see each other again. Rachel grows up in an affluent Florida suburb, the popular and protected daughter of two doting parents. Andy grows up poor in Philadelphia with a single mom and a rare talent for running. Yet, over the next three decades, Andy and Rachel will meet again and again—linked by chance, history, and the memory of the first time they met, a night that changed the course of both of their lives.

Brown-Eyed Girl, by Lisa Kleypas. Wedding planner Avery Crosslin may be a rising star in Houston society, but she doesn't believe in love-at least not for herself. When she meets wealthy bachelor Joe Travis and mistakes him for a wedding photographer, she has no intention of letting him sweep her off her feet. But Joe is a man who goes after what he wants, and Avery can't resist the temptation of a sexy southern charmer and a hot summer evening. But while Avery is adamant that one night is all it was, Joe has very different plans.