Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Coming in 2019


Here are some books I can’t wait to read in the first half of 2019. Problem is, I’m sure I’ll think of more, the minute I post this blog. Click the links to learn more. What’s on your reading list so far this year?

The Wartime Sisters: A Novel by Lynda Cohen Loigman. It's on my bedside table now! I'm excited to dive into this story of two sisters in a WWII armory, each with a deep secret. I absolutely loved Loigman's debut, The Two-Family House.

The Age of Light by Whitney Scharer - February 5. Told in interweaving timelines, this much anticipated novel is a portrait of Lee Miller--who transformed from a model to a renowned photographer in the first half of the twentieth century.

The Last Romantics by Tara Conklin - February 5. If you loved the NYT bestselling The House Girl like I did, then add this to your reading list. It's a sweeping and intimate epic about one American family--a novel that Meg Wolitzer calls "richly observed and ambitious."


American Pop by Snowden Wright - February 5. It's about a Southern dynasty with ambition, passion, and tragedy, moving from Mississippi to Paris to New York and back. I can see myself getting lost in this family saga that follows the rise of a soft drink empire.

Baby of the Family: A Novel by Maura Roosevelt - March 5. In this debut, the money is old, the problems are new--and one American family has secrets. 


The Last Year of the War by Susan Meissner - March 19. Meissner promises yet another emotional read with this story of identity, and two girls confined to a German internment camp in America during WWII.

Outside Looking In by T.C. Boyle - April 9. Boyle blew me away with his gritty historical fiction about Frank Lloyd Wright and Dr. Alfred Kinsey, so his spin on psychedelic drug guru Timothy Leary should be a real trip. 

When We Left Cuba by Chanel Cleeton - April 9. I think I fell in love with Cleeton's last book, Next Year in Havana even before Reese Witherspoon's book club did. Now, we'll be treated to a continuation of that story, with gutsy sister Beatriz and the Cuban Revolution. 

Lost Roses by Martha Hall Kelly - April 19. A follow-up to her beautiful and wildly popular Lilac Girls, comes this story of three women set a generation earlier--in WWI. It's also based on true events. 

The Abolitionist's Daughter by Diane C. McPhail - April 30. I had the pleasure of meeting this author at a 10-day writer's workshop at Yale University. When she described her novel-in-progress over lunch one day, I knew immediately that I'd have to read this book. It's set in Mississippi and depicts a struggle of the Civil War that's much lessor known.


Daisy Jones & the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid - May 5. The iconic rise and infamous breakup of a 1970s rock band will be laid bare in this book. If it's as juicy as The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, it will be a page-turner.

The Guest Book by Sarah Blake - May 7. I loved Blake's The Postmistress. Her new book is about a decision that ripples through a family for generations. Right up my alley.

The Last Time I Saw You by Liv Constantine - May 7. This book is about the aftermath of a brutal murder in high society. It's rumored to have shocking twists--and I believe it, because I read Constantine's last bestseller, The Last Mrs. Parrish


The Confessions of Frannie Langton: A Novel by Sara Collins - May 21. A debut novel being compared to The Underground Railroad and The Paying Guests, it's a historical thriller about a former slave who murders her employer and his wife.

The Electric Hotel by Dominic Smith - June 4. I once named Smith's The Last Painting of Sara De Vos the best of the first 100 past-and-present novels I'd tweeted about. The author shifts between periods again here, though this time it's about the fate of a silent film director and his muse.

The Summer Country by Lauren Willig - June 4. This book is billed as a multi-generational Victorian epic of lost love, lies, jealousy, and rebellion set in colonial Barbados. I can't wait!


I've already got a reading list started for the second half of this year. . . .


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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 COTTINGLEY SECRET by Hazel Gaynor

THE NECKLACE by Claire McMillan

THOSE WHO SAVE US by Jenna Blum


STOLEN BEAUTY by Laurie Lico Albanese

THE LOST SISTERHOOD by Anne Fortier


A LONG TIME GONE by Karen White

THE BOOK OF SPECULATION by Erika Swyler




MRS. SINCLAIR’S SUITCASE by Louise Walters

THE LOST LETTER by Jillian Cantor


Category #2
Object Links Two Unrelated Characters


THE WEIGHT OF INK by Rachel Kadish



POSSESSION by A.S. Byatt


THE WEIGHT OF WATER by Anita Shreve

ALONG THE INFINITE SEA by Beatriz Williams

THE FORTUNATE ONES by Ellen Umansky

THE HOUSE GIRL by Tara Conklin

A PARIS APARTMENT by Michelle Gable

           
           Category #3
           Character Looks Back

THE HOUSE RIVERTON by Kate Morton

CALLING ME HOME by Julie Kibler

THE NIGHTINGALE by Kristin Hannah

THE AFTER PARTY by Anton Disclafani

WATER FOR ELEPHANTS by Sara Gruen

SECRETS OF A CHARMED LIFE by Susan Meissner

THE SWANS OF FIFTH AVENUE by Melanie Benjamin

ORPHAN TRAIN by Christina Baker Kline

THE SEVEN HUSBANDS OF EVELYN HUGO by Taylor Jenkins Reid

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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