Sunday, October 14, 2018

Five Books. Five Pages that Grabbed Me.

Much is made of a novel’s first five pages. I love to be hooked by page five, myself—if not by page one, paragraph one, or even sentence one. I’ve assembled five of many books that riveted me from the start. With these, I knew in the opening that I’d have read to the end. These stories all happen to alternate between the past and present.

How to Stop Time by Matt Haig – Let’s review a couple of lines, and I think you’ll see what I mean.

Page one: “I often think of what Hendrich said to me, over a century ago, in his New York apartment. ‘The first rule is that you don’t fall in love,’ he said.” The narrator has a rare condition that makes him “old in the way that a tree, or a quahog clam, or a Renaissance painting is old.”

I knew in the first five pages that this book promised to feed my craving for a guided tour through history. And the narrator’s voice was smart and fun. And, the narrator wanted desperately to find someone about whom he cared.

            Stolen Beauty by Laurie Lico Albanese – As if the metallic gold, textured cover and the endpaper just inside—bearing a woman’s portrait—weren’t enough to suck me in, the prologue transported me. On page one, readers are treated to the author’s lovely sensory detail as a 1938 party revs up in a glittering Austrian ballroom. But by the end of the page, news that Hitler’s army is on the way changes everything. Rarely have I read opening pages so filled with tension, dread, action, and fear, contrasted by such beauty.

            Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty by Ramona Ausubel – The story opens in 1976 with saltwater and sailboats and pies and muffins. There’s children in shorts and sailor shirts, and their mom and their dad who are ready for summer. By the fourth page, we learn the wife’s parents have died. Then,

‘“There’s no more money,’ she said to [her husband] through the wind. ‘The money is gone.’ It was like announcing a death. The long-ago earning of that money—slaves, cotton, rum—and the spending of it, were done. The money had lived its own life, like a relative.”
I couldn’t wait to see how (or if) this couple who had lived off the fat of their family survived this blow. Add to that, I wanted to read more of this author's fascinating prose.

          The Girl Who Wrote in Silk by Kelli Estes – In 1886, a Chinese girl’s father pushes her off a boat into the icy Puget Sound waters of the Washington territory. “Do not disappoint me, Daughter.” She has a mission for her family.

Why? I had to know.

By page three, we open to modern day Washington State, and a woman on a ferry. She’s in route to a place she hasn’t wanted to see in years—the estate built by Duncan Campbell, her lumber baron great-great-great-grandfather.

How are the two stories connected? I had to know.

           Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum – The prologue begins with the funeral of Trudy Swenson’s father in the bitter cold of Minnesota. I’m hooked by Blum's vivid imagery and the dysfunction displayed with Trudy’s mother of German descent—and when, upon returning to her parents’ home, Trudy discovers her father’s clothes are already stuffed into garbage bags. By the end of the chapter, there’s another surprise and I cannot stop reading! I have to know the horrible secrets that Trudy’s mother, a survivor of WWII, has never spoken of.

BONUS!  Blum's books have amazing first chapters, and also amazing last chapters. I highly recommend her latest novel, The Lost Family. The final five pages made me cry . . . and I love when endings make me cry.

            What novels grabbed you in the first five pages?

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Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Summer is Here (and so are summer reads)!

         Browse any bookstore and you’re sure to find enticing covers with “summer” in the titles. Hard to resist, aren’t they? Reading by the pool while listening to the birds sing is one of my favorite things to do on a weekend.

I just finished The Summer I Met Jack by Michelle Gable, and oh my gosh, I loved it. I came to the book having had no idea that Alicia Darr—former lover of JFK—had ever even existed. Her story was fascinating, but I won’t give away the details. I so enjoyed learning about the Kennedy family, Darr’s background as a WWII refugee, and her rise in the 1950s that I don’t want to spoil the surprises. But I found Gable’s novel exquisitely researched and brilliantly structured with past and present threads. For historical fiction junkies and readers of pop culture, this story will be a page-turner.

Then there’s The Myth of Perpetual Summer, just out by Susan Crandall. I’m totally up for a journey back to the 1960s-70s with a coming-of-age tale and buried secrets in a Southern town. This one’s going into my beach bag.

The Summer Sail has also caught my eye. Wendy Francis’s work is new to me, but I hear she appeals to fans of Emily Giffin, so this story about college friends who reunite on a cruise ship is on my TBR list. Cocktails with tiny umbrellas may be in order.

Amy Mason Doan makes her fiction debut with The Summer List. Two old girlfriends, a secret, a lakeside town in California—and a mysterious scavenger hunt. What could go wrong? I’ll be wearing my sunglasses and big-brimmed hat when cracking open this book.

         I recently discovered author Jamie Brenner (The Husband Hour), and so I'm anxious to dive into her latest novel: The Forever SummerIt's the story of a young woman whose life has just fallen apart, and her escape to a beachside B&B where she meets the grandmother she never knew she had.

         Beatriz Williams has a summer novel coming out in July that will be a must-read for me. The Summer Wives shifts from 1951 to 1969, with another character from the Schuyler clan. Can’t wait!

         As I reminisce about my own summers in recent years, here are a couple more titles I lapped up after smoothing on the sunscreen. A girl can never read too many summer sizzlers, can she?

That Summer by Lauren Willig – An old house outside of London, a mysterious heirloom painting, and a woman trying to heal from past tragedy.

The Summer Girls by Mary Alice Monroe – Sea life, three testy sisters, and the love and lessons of their grandmother.

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Thursday, May 10, 2018

8 Books, 8 Memorable Moms

What makes a fictional mother memorable to me? It may be a woman who has survived a great tragedy, or one who’s made great sacrifice. It may be a mother who has faced unspeakable choices, struggled with a decision, and then lived with the consequences. It may be a mother who has made mistakes, or one who longs for things she can never have, or one who overcomes great obstacles to achieve the things she's always dreamed of. 

What all of these “mother characters” have in common—the one thing they exhibit besides loving their children—is they are women first. They came to parenthood with secrets or yearnings and then made their way in a world where their futures may or may not have been within their control.

With Mother’s Day upon us, I’ve scanned my bookcases for the spines that instantly evoke characters who are memorable mothers. There are many from which to pick (!), but I’ve boiled this year’s list down to the eight books below. What books have you read that feature memorable mothers?

The Far End of Happy by Kathryn Craft

The Two-Family House by Lynda Cohen Loigman

Last Night at the Blue Angel by Rebecca Rotert

Evening by Susan Minot

Every Last One by Anna Quindlen

As Bright As Heaven by Susan Meissner

Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller

The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman

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Wednesday, March 14, 2018

A Bit o' the Irish

One of my favorite author discoveries in recent years is J. Courtney Sullivan. Her literary novels go back and forth through the decades of this century and the last, and the stories go deep into the hearts of loving but troubled families—often Irish-Catholic families. Whether it’s the family matriarch who's riddled with guilt or a daughter who’s recovering from divorce, I love how Sullivan takes me into the head of each family member, showing me her fears, regrets, and dreams. And, we learn as much about a character through others’ opinions of him or her as we do when we’re in a character’s own point of view.

On the surface, SAINTS FOR ALL OCCASIONS is the story of two Irish immigrant sisters, a baby, a secret, sacrifice, and betrayal. But it’s also a peek into how the mid-twentieth century confined women, often leaving them with few choices over their own lives.

The author weaves through her past-and-present narratives issues ranging from feminism and gay rights to alcoholism and racial prejudice. Perhaps my favorite Sullivan book is MAINE, a story of three generations of women, set in a summer cottage on the beach. Characters are filled with flaws, insecurities, quirks, and passions. 

You don’t have to be part Irish like me to enjoy Sullivan’s work!

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Monday, February 12, 2018

Close-Up On Multi-Period Novels

This month’s issue of the Historical Novels Review features my article on multi-period novels. In it, I share insights from four authors who’ve written new or forthcoming books that alternate between the past and present: Chanel Cleeton, Jane Johnson, Ariel Lawhon, and James CarrollThe authors reveal the challenges they face in writing dual narrative novels and suggest reasons why readers like me devour them. Plus, my article proposes three categories into which virtually all such novels fall. 

Below, I’ve highlighted more examples of novels which fit my suggested categories. You've no doubt already read some of them, but perhaps there are a few you have not? Enjoy!

           Category #1
           Object Connects Related Characters Across Time


THE NECKLACE by Claire McMillan


STOLEN BEAUTY by Laurie Lico Albanese


A LONG TIME GONE by Karen White



THE LOST LETTER by Jillian Cantor

Category #2
Object Links Two Unrelated Characters

THE WEIGHT OF INK by Rachel Kadish



ALONG THE INFINITE SEA by Beatriz Williams


THE HOUSE GIRL by Tara Conklin

A PARIS APARTMENT by Michelle Gable

           Category #3
           Character Looks Back


CALLING ME HOME by Julie Kibler

THE NIGHTINGALE by Kristin Hannah

THE AFTER PARTY by Anton Disclafani




ORPHAN TRAIN by Christina Baker Kline


THE WOMEN IN THE CASTLE by Jessica Shattuck

For a deeper analysis into books that fit Category #3, check out my post from November 2017. I'd love to hear from readers, too. What other novels fit these categories? Can you think of any past-and-present novels that don't?

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Friday, January 26, 2018

Four Books That Staggered Me

Books that take me into the darkest times in history, where human beings treat other human beings with unimaginable cruelty, both enlighten and horrify me. When the stories are told through the eyes of the young, they also reveal pain, hope, and strength in ways no other novels can.

Four such books that I highly recommend are noted below. Each has passages that dip into the past with utter vividness through memories and flashbacks—and each depicts the story’s present period without restraint. I’ve chosen to provide the opening lines to these literary works, for the lovely language in such novels is one thing that keeps me going through the roughest parts. These books are not easy reads. But I feel better for having read them. Mustn’t we know what came before us, so as to prevent atrocities in the world from recurring? And, is it not good to be reminded of the feelings we humans share, no matter the time and place . . . feelings of love, joy, fear, or regret?

Mischling tells the story of two little girls in “The Zoo,” the place where a doctor performed experiments on sets of twins in Auschwitz.

“We were made, once. My twin, Pearl, and me. Or, to be precise, Pearl was formed and I split from her. She embossed herself on the womb; I copied her signature. For eight months we were afloat in amniotic snowfall, two rosy mittens resting on the lining of our mother.”
A girl comes of age during the Cambodian genocide in In the Shadow of the Banyan.

“War entered my childhood world not with the blasts of rockets and bombs but with my father’s footsteps as he walked through the hallway, passing my bedroom toward his.”

The Pulitzer Prize-winning Underground Railroad follows a young slave’s escape from a cotton plantation in Georgia.

“The first time Caesar approached Cora about running north, she said no.”

The Kite Runner centers on two boys from different backgrounds who live through devastation in Afghanistan.

“I became what I am today at the age of twelve, on a frigid overcast day in the winter of 1975. I remember the precise moment, crouching behind a crumbling mud wall, peeking into the alley near the frozen creek. That was a long time ago, but it’s wrong what they say about the past, I’ve learned, about how you can bury it. Because the past claws its way out. Looking back now, I realize I have been peeking into that deserted alley for the last twenty-six years.”

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Saturday, December 23, 2017

Swans, Rings, and Calling Birds: Book Recs for the Holidays

When it comes to the “12 Days of Christmas,” might you or the readers in your life like some last-minute stocking-stuffers? Or, suggestions for books to read in the New Year? Below are three novels which shift between time periods. So, build a fire, snuggle up, pour some eggnog, and enjoy the season. Cheers!

The Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin: I confess, although I was vaguely familiar with Truman Capote before reading this novel, I knew almost nothing about his work and life. Benjamin's historical fiction immerses us in the high society scene of 1950s New York City. The story follows Capote’s rise to literary fame, his circle of friends he calls his swans—and his subsequent fall from grace when he crosses them. Setting part of her book in the contemporary 1970s as her characters reflect, the author offers a fascinating take on the socialites’ glamorous lifestyle . . .  but also the expectations that they strive to fulfill and the inner yearnings and even loneliness from which they suffer.

             The Ruby Ring by Diane Haeger: The author imagines the circumstances that surrounded the lives of Italian artist Raphael and the woman he loved. Inspired by the actual discovery of a 500-year-old ring embedded in the dried paint of one of the master’s sensual paintings, the story uncovers Rome's papal climate and the passionate relationship between Raphael and a baker’s daughter who modeled for his most well-known works.

             The Gravity of Birds by Tracy Guzeman: Spanning more than 40 years in the 20th century, this is another tale of a painter, his past, and the women’s lives he influenced. This mysterious story takes us into the heads and hearts of two sisters who end up missing—a beautifully written story that’s rife with secrets and jealousies. 

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