Tag: Small Town Life

A Criminal in the Family: The Best Kind of People and Fear

October 12, 2017 Mini Book Reviews 12

What would you do if a family member is accused of a horrific crime? Both these books address this situation in very different ways. In one, the accused a beloved family man and pillar of the community, while the other accused is a gun-loving somewhat absentee father. Regardless, each family is left reeling and there is far more to the story than they imagined.

Best Kind of People by Zoe WhittallThe Best Kind of People by Zoe Whittall
Fiction (
Released September 19, 2017)
352 Pages
Bottom Line: Read it.

Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Publisher (Ballantine Books)

Plot Summary: When George Woodbury, a beloved teacher and pillar of the small community of Avalon Hills, is accused of sexual misconduct, his family tries to navigate their upturned world.

My Thoughts: The Best Kind of People is what I call an “aftermath book.” It’s not a page-turner about George Woodbury’s alleged crimes, but more an exploration of the repercussions on his wife and two children (one grown and one still in high school). It explores the conflicted feelings of the loved ones surrounding someone accused of a horrific crime, when you’re forced to reset your view of someone you love and respect, and the unique implications of this playing out in a small, upscale community. I enjoyed all these elements of the story.

However, a couple things bothered me. First, Sadie Woodbury (George’s high school aged daughter) constantly spouted facts and figures about sexual assault, which made the “issue” angle of the book feel heavy-handed. And, without spoiling anything, I wish the existing ending had occurred a little earlier in the book and we’d gotten to explore a bit of the aftermath following the big reveal. Following everything the Woodburys had to face with George, I wondered how they’d face that final turn of events. Despite these flaws, I do think The Best Kind of People would make a great book club selection…lots to discuss here.

Fear by Dirk KurbjuweitFear by Dirk Kurbjuweit
Fiction – Translation (
Released October 3, 2017)
272 Pages
Bottom Line: Read it.

Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Publisher (Harper)

Plot Summary: After a stalking campaign by Randolph Tiefenthaler’s downstairs neighbor, Randolph’s father lands in prison for shooting the neighbor.

My Thoughts: Fear is what I like to call a “why book.” It starts with the main event and the suspense lies in discovering the how and why. I love this type of story and Fear was no exception. It was marketed as a “gripping thriller,” but I’d say it’s more of a slow burn. The overall feel is very European (logical since this is a German translation). Think Herman Koch (more Dear Mr. M than The Dinner) and Based on a True Story, with the tension simmering and crackling beneath the surface rather than exploding in a more traditional, action-packed way. I could feel the tension of the Tiefenthaler family trying to hold it together in the face of this evil outside force and loved how Kurbjuweit explores the family’s reactions along the way.

Fear is a bit of an untraditional thriller, which tend to work better for me than the traditional kind. It’s chock full of keen observations about marriage, Randolph’s experience as the son of a gun-loving father, and Randolph’s childhood growing up in Cold War-era Berlin. That being said, this type of thriller is not for everyone and some readers might be hard-pressed to even call it a thriller. But as someone who generally has trouble with run-of-the-mill thrillers, Fear stood out for me.

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Dead Letters by Caite Dolan-Leach: The Book I’ll Be Recommending to Absolutely Everyone

March 7, 2017 Fiction 24

Dead Letters, Caite Dolan-LeachFiction – Debut
Released February 21, 2017
353 Pages
Bottom Line: Read it.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Purchased (published by Random House)

Headline

This debut novel has absolutely everything and is one I’ll be recommending to just about everyone I know for a long time.

Plot Summary

When Ava Antipova gets word that her wild twin sister (Zelda) is dead, she leaves her Paris graduate program to return to her family’s vineyard in upstate New York…only to find circumstances surrounding her sister’s death that are a bit off and a message from Zelda.

Why I Read It

I never would have picked up this book on my own (I’m not a fan of the title or the cover and the premise of the story is not particularly appealing)…but Catherine at Gilmore Guide (whose reading taste I trust implicitly) said I absolutely must read it.

Major Themes

Dysfunctional families, alcoholism, degenerative illness, twins

What I Loved

  • It’s rare that I find a book I can comfortably categorize as “literary” AND “brain candy.” These are my favorite kinds of books to discover and are the ones I feel like I can recommend to anyone at any time. Dead Letters is the first book I’ve read in awhile that fits this description.
  • I knew within the first two paragraphs that I would love this book. Ava’s voice spoke to me immediately and I would later discover the crackling dialogue and snarky, occasionally morbid humor that’s right up my alley.

He has rented a flashy convertible, of course. My dad likes to travel in style, regardless of finances, seemliness, tact. He tends to think of any economic restriction as a dead-letter issue, a rule that does not apply to him.

  • It’s a mystery and a dysfunctional family novel (two of my favorite things) all wrapped up into one ball of alcohol-soaked perfection. There is a crime, but it’s not the center of the story. Rather, it’s a device that helps unravel the twisted dynamics of Zelda and Ava’s relationship (and their relationship with their parents), which is what this book is truly about. And I can add it to my list of winning novels that have a “crime that is not the center of the story” (My Sunshine Away, Every Last One, and Only Love Can Break Your Heart).
  • Dead Letters has almost all of my favorite fiction elements: a perfectly paced plot, a dysfunctional family, a mystery, great writing, snarky humor, and depth. I don’t think I’ve come across a novel as jam packed with elements that are so firmly in my wheelhouse in quite a while.
  • It’s a book that is fun, yet dark and morbid at the same time. There is a delightfully demented scavenger hunt that strings the reader right along for the ride, yet death and loss permeates the entire story.
  • There’s a sly Friday Night Lights reference!
  • This is a book that you just need to pick up and read. Don’t bother learning a ton about the plot beforehand…going in blind adds to the fun.

What I Didn’t Like

  • I HATE the cover and am not a huge fan of the title. Both make Dead Letters look like it will be type of book that’s compared to Gone Girl or The Girl on the Train, then inevitably doesn’t live up to either. Though Dead Letters does have some similarities, it’s it’s own kind of wonderful.
  • I also think the publisher’s blurb gives away far too much information about the plot.

A Defining Quote

Maybe because we were twins, we sought a way to differentiate, to oh so rigorously sketch out our borders. You needed to say, to speak the ways you were different. I’m Ava, I’m the ambitious one; that’s Zelda, she’s the messy one. As though you could determine your own story, secure the ending you wanted through obsessive narration.

Good for People Who Like…

Stories about sisters (particularly twins), stories about mothers and daughters, dysfunctional families, accessible writing, unexpectedly funny, snarky humor.

Other Books You May Like

Another deeply dysfunctional family novel that involves a family member returning home:
The Roanoke Girls by Amy Engel

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Why Idaho by Emily Ruskovich Didn’t Quite Gel For Me

January 5, 2017 Fiction 34

Idaho, Emily RuskovichFiction
Released January 3, 2017
320 Pages
Bottom Line: Skip it.
Affiliate Link: Amazon
Source: Publisher (Random House) via NetGalley

Headline

This debut novel has some intriguing story elements, but they never quite gel into a cohesive story.

Plot Summary

Ann Mitchell tries to piece together the details behind the crime that ended her husband, Wade’s, first marriage, and landed his ex-wife (Jenny) in prison for murder.

Why I Read It

This debut novel caught my attention when I reviewed Random House’s Spring 2017 catalog and, later, I heard good things about it from Shannon at River City Reading.

Major Themes

Marriage, family secrets, memory

What I Liked

  • Idaho is a quiet mystery of what happened to a family…and I don’t think I’ve ever used the words quiet and mystery in the same sentence. However, this combination had promise.
  • While the story is built around the crime that destroyed Wade’s family, that’s not really what the book is about. It’s more about the layers on top of the central mystery (Wade and Ann’s marriage, Wade’s illness, living under a cloud that you don’t know much about)…making it feel like more than your average mystery.
  • The writing is gorgeous at times. There are beautiful sentences, but they rarely string together to create a gorgeous paragraph or chapter.

The postwoman in Ponderosa feels entitled; she moves with confidence and knowing, as if because her fingertips have had the privilege of sorting out Ann’s envelopes, she has glimpsed what she thinks is inside them all – lies, pleas, false trails, dirty news, licked closed by the tongues of the past.

What I Didn’t Like

  • This is an odd book. There were times when I couldn’t put it down and others when I found myself skimming just to get through it. I was intrigued at times, but bewildered at others.
  • There are compelling elements to this story…I think the downfall is in the execution. The story construction is clunky and there are a number of sub-plots going on, yet they never converge into a central theme. It’s almost like Ruskovich couldn’t decide whether the book was about Wade and Ann’s marriage, Wade’s illness, the murder itself, or Jenny’s fate following the murder and her experience in prison.
  • There were parts of the story that seemed pointless and confusing (ex: Ann’s imaginings of how the murder might have happened, Elliott’s – an extremely minor character – romantic issues later in life)…but I was sure things would all tie together in the end. They didn’t.
  • The major questions of the book were never addressed. I don’t mind open-ended endings, but this was so extreme that it made me wonder what the point of the book was. For example, one of the things that kept me reading was to find out why Jenny committed the murder she did. There are sections of the story from Jenny’s perspective while she’s in prison where Ruskovich could easily have addressed the why of it all, but never did.
  • While beautiful at times, the writing also veered into “head-in-the-clouds” territory too often for my taste.

The sameness of that prison wall is like a winter spent in a wilderness you can’t hope to matter to.

A Defining Quote

“You know you don’t like me going up there, but you don’t know why. You’re so angry at me and you don’t remember why.”

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It’s Complicated: Loner and The Trouble With Goats and Sheep

September 15, 2016 Mini Book Reviews 16

I had mixed feelings about both of these books…and had trouble deciding whether or not to recommend them. 

Loner, Teddy WayneLoner by Teddy Wayne
Fiction (Released September 13, 2016)
224 Pages
Bottom Line: Skip it…I think.
Affiliate Link: Amazon
Source: Publisher (Simon & Schuster) via NetGalley

Plot Summary: High school geek David Federman hopes to change his social fortunes at Harvard University, becoming obsessed with gorgeous dorm-mate Veronica Morgan Wells on the first day of school.

My Thoughts: I’m a sucker for campus novels, so I was willing to give Teddy Wayne’s latest a shot despite not being enamored with his previous novel, The Love Song of Jonny Valentine. It took me awhile to get into Loner, but the farther I read, the more I was dying to find out how the entanglement between David, Veronica, and David’s girlfriend (Sara, Veronica’s roommate) would resolve itself. David reminded me of Can’t Buy Me Love‘s Ronald Miller, a geek who acquired some measure of social status through questionable associations with a popular girl before flying too close to the sun…and his downward trajectory reminded me a bit of the desperate spiral in Belinda McKeon’s Tender (but, please don’t take this as a comparison to Tender as an overall book!).

When all was said and done, I’m not sure I bought David’s personality evolution or the ending of the book. His motivation for his actions at the end was completely unclear. Did he want another level of attention? Was it out of anger or vengeance or a thirst for power? I also wondered if Loner was intended to address a social issue. If it was, it merely dipped a toe in that pool rather than doing a cannonball into the deep end. Finally, the writing was a bit uneven…brilliantly capturing what it might be like to be an outsider at Harvard at times and resorting to over-the-top pretension at others. As you can see, I’m a bit conflicted about Loner overall.

Trouble with Goats and Sheep, Joanna CannonThe Trouble With Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon
Fiction (Released July 12, 2016)
352 Pages
Bottom Line: Skip it…I think.
Affiliate Link: Amazon
Source: Purchased (Publisher: Scribner)

Plot Summary: During the sweltering summer of 1976 in England, the disappearance of their adult neighbor (Margaret Creasy) ignites two ten year old girls’ (Grace and Tilly) curiosity about community, God, and neighborhood secrets.

My Thoughts: The Trouble With Goats and Sheep was an up and down book for me, sporting high highs and low lows. It has two characteristics I generally love in my reading: releasing background information about characters in drips and drabs (like Did You Ever Have A Family) and melding a coming of age story with a crime or mystery (like My Sunshine Away and Only Love Can Break Your Heart). I was immediately captivated by ten year-old Grace’s voice, which manages to be childlike without being childish. She sounds clever and unique, yet still maintains her innocence.

I had never met anyone who had nearly died, and in the beginning the subject was attacked with violent curiosity. Then it became more than fascination. I needed to know everything, so that all the details might be stitched together for protection. As if hearing the truth would somehow save us from it.

And Cannon’s writing, in general, blew me away…at first. She showed a propensity for writing about emotions like they are physical things and, on the flip side, giving inanimate objects emotion. Worrying was “packed away” and “made silent.” A room looked “tired and unhappy.” This writing trick piqued my interest early on, but it appeared so often that it felt gimmicky by the end. Every time I spotted another example, I’d roll my eyes and think “here we go again.” The story also took far too long to advance through the middle…I felt like we weren’t much farther at 75% than we were at 25%. That being said, I thoroughly enjoyed Cannon’s style during the first 25% and some of the surprises towards the end.

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Three Favorite 2016 Summer Reads: Siracusa, The Hopefuls, and You Will Know Me

August 11, 2016 Mini Book Reviews 28

In July, I had a reading streak of absolutely perfect light reads that would be great for vacation. All these books will be going on my 2016 Summer Reading Guide.

Siracusa, Delia EphronSiracusa by Delia Ephron
Fiction (Released July 12, 2016)
304 Pages
Bottom Line: Read it.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Publisher (Blue Rider Press) via NetGalley

Plot Summary: Relationships are put to the test when two couples (and one couple’s somewhat odd daughter) vacation together in Italy.

My Thoughts: Siracusa might be my favorite vacation-type read so far this year! It’s light and fast-moving, but also smartly written. The story is told from each of the four adults’ perspectives and the writing style shifts with each voice. Going into the trip, both marriages had their own issues, with each spouse frequently mocking his/her partner. As the trip takes on a somewhat surreal quality, everyone starts acting out…refusing to hide their pent-up resentments any longer. Ephron generates suspense by dropping little hints about innocuous moments that later take on greater meaning…contributing to the feeling that things are eventually going to combust.

Beyond the story itself, the characters’ musings on everything from marriage and cheating to travel and the writer’s life allowed Ephron’s writing to shine and kicked this book a notch above other vacation reads for me.

I must have understood more than I realized, how fragile things between us were. Now I do nothing but look at things other ways, flipping them up and around, examining them, trying to understand at the very least my own obtuseness. I think, I really do torture myself with this: Surprises don’t come from people we know well, certainly not people we love. We call them surprises but they are inevitabilities. I must have been playing a role, a starring role, in an inevitability.

Siracusa is a fantastic choice if you’re heading on vacation (particularly to Italy).

The Hopefuls, Jennifer CloseThe Hopefuls by Jennifer Close
Fiction (Released July 19, 2016)
320 Pages
Bottom Line: Read it.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Purchased (Publisher: Knopf)

Plot Summary: When young couple Matt and Beth Kelly move from New York City to Washington, D.C. for Matt’s job, they must navigate marriage and friendship in the political world.

My Thoughts: While The Hopefuls is set in the political world, it’s not a book about politics. Rather, it’s a book about marriage and friendship set against the backdrop of politics. Beth finds D.C. an odd and unwelcoming place until she and Matt meet the Dillons, another couple who will become their best friends. Beth is an accessible and relatable narrator and her witty commentary about the douche-y D.C. politicos had me chuckling. Maybe it was her pop culture references (including one about Friday Night Lights!) or her propensity to point out D.C. traits I would also find annoying or the fact that she and Matt’s time in NYC coincided with mine, but I felt like she was speaking my language. The Hopefuls also tackles themes that resonated with me: making new friends as adults (and navigating the boundaries of said friendships), the nosiness of small towns, and trying to find your footing in a new place.

Here’s what I still hate about DC: the way that nothing is permanent, the feeling that everything and everyone you know, could (and does) wash away every four or eight years. All of these important people, so ingrained in the city—you can’t imagine that this place could exist without them. But one day they’re gone and everything keeps moving just the same. Who can get their footing in a place like this? It feels like quicksand to me.

My only complaint was that the ending wrapped things up a little too nicely, yet didn’t. The question of where the characters end up was answered, but some large issues that figured prominently in the storyline and certainly should have impacted the outcome of the book were left unexplored. Despite the unsatisfying ending, I thoroughly enjoyed the ride (which, as I discussed here, is generally more important to me anyway) and highly recommend The Hopefuls as a light, relatable summer read.

You Will Know Me, Megan AbbottYou Will Know Me by Megan Abbott
Fiction (Released July 26, 2016)
352 Pages
Bottom Line: Read it.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Purchased (Publisher: Little, Brown)

Plot Summary: A tragic accident throws fifteen year-old gymnastics prodigy Devon Knox and her family’s carefully constructed training plans into chaos. 

My Thoughts: If you’re looking for a book that you can fly through, this is it. Megan Abbott writes young girls in the most deliciously demented way (see The Fever and Dare Me) and what better world for characters like that to inhabit than elite gymnastics. Only this time Abbott throws in a pack of overly zealous parents to deepen the appeal. She choreographs a meticulously drawn world of tiny powerhouse girls, parents who push all else aside to “help” their daughters achieve “their” dreams, and families whose literal (mountains of credit card debt, multiple mortgages) and figurative fortunes ride on their daughters’ young shoulders. 

A few months later, after placing sixth on beam and bars in the Level 10 Junior Nationals in sunstruck Orlando, she was ranked first among all Level 10s in their home state. “The greatest day of our life,” Devon said, and everyone laughed at the our, except it was true, wasn’t it?

Though the central plot points weren’t entirely unexpected, Abbott’s writing style had me on the edge of my seat, frantically turning pages, even though I was fairly confident I knew how this would end. The paragraphs are short…with an almost breathless quality and I could feel the tension crackling. If you’re not getting a big enough gymnastics fix during this week’s Olympics competition or just want a page-turning beach read, You Will Know Me is your ticket.

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Read One, Skip One: The Secret Wisdom of the Earth and Work Like Any Other

March 10, 2016 Mini Book Reviews 17

Secret Wisdom of the Earth, Christopher ScottonThe Secret Wisdom of the Earth by Christopher Scotton
Southern Fiction (Released January 6, 2015)
466 Pages
Bottom Line: Read it.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Purchased (Publisher: Grand Central)

Plot Summary: Following the accidental death of his younger brother, Kevin and his grieving mother go to live with his grandfather in a small Appalachian town facing a ruthless coal company, racial prejudice, and homophobia.

My Thoughts: This book vaulted to the top of my backlist TBR when Ann at Books on the Table called it her favorite book of 2015 and described it as “Harper Lee meets Pat Conroy.” I can now see where that description came from, but I thought it was a bit more Harper Lee and less Pat Conroy. There is a LOT going on in this book…quirky small-town farm community goings-on (i.e. bull castration), the struggles of a single industry town, the environmental impact of the coal mines, Kevin’s coming of age, recovering from grief, prejudice (both racial and homophobia), and a “Friday Night Lights”-type football star. Whew! All that, plus the Atticus Finch-like character of Arthur Peebles (Kevin’s grandfather) who dispenses sage life advice left and right, kept me turning the pages.

I found a lot of my reading sweet spots in one place with this book, which made it enjoyable, but there were a few issues that kept me from loving it like I expected. The writing was what many people would call beautiful, but it felt like it was trying too hard to be just that. And, the ending was one of those “here’s where everyone ends up decades later” wrap-ups that almost feels like high school yearbook senior predictions. But, I do think fans of Southern fiction and coming of age stories will enjoy this one and it was the book that finally stuck for me after two DNFs in one week!

Work Like Any Other, Virginia ReevesWork Like Any Other by Virginia Reeves
Southern Fiction (Released March 1, 2016)
272 Pages
Bottom Line: Skip it.
Affiliate Link: Amazon
Source: Publisher (Scribner) via NetGalley

Plot Summary: Roscoe T. Martin left a job he loved (an electrician for Alabama Power) to move to his wife’s family farm, only to have his electrical work on the farm result in a tragic accident that gets Roscoe sent to prison and changes his family’s lives forever.

My Thoughts: This debut novel got off to a promising start, but eventually lost its way. The story is told in two timelines: one leading up to the accident and one from Roscoe’s perspective as he sits in prison after the accident. The dual timelines enabled the suspense to be in the how rather than the what, which is generally a literary structure I enjoy. I also enjoyed the reflection on work and the impact on a person’s state of mind when their passion gets taken away. And, the writing is beautiful in a simple, down-to-earth way:

We are born with some things in our veins, coal for my father and farming for Marie’s and a deep electrical current for me. My father’s draw started from need, I suppose, and Marie’s father’s from land, and mine from glowing Birmingham streetlamps. I had stared at those bulbs the first time I saw them, the streets lit by a force greater than any I’d known – bigger than me, bigger than my father, bigger than his tunnels even. “I want to work with electricity,” I remember telling him.

However, I think this novel would have made a better short story and it actually felt like it could have originally been a short story that was stretched into a novel (I searched Google for any truth to this and couldn’t find any). After just over a quarter of the book, the story was more or less over for me. As things meandered on, I kept wondering where the storyline had left to go. And, when it finally ended, I thought “that was it?” Though this book didn’t work for me, Virginia Reeves’ tone and writing style have me interested to see what she does next.

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Only Love Can Break Your Heart by Ed Tarkington: The Southern Coming of Age Novel of 2016?

January 28, 2016 Southern Fiction 16

Only Love Can Break Your HeartFiction – Southern
Released January 5, 2016
320 Pages
Bottom Line: Read it.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Publisher (Algonquin Books) via NetGalley

Headline

The awkward and innocent, yet calculating voice of Rocky made this Southern coming of age story sparkle…and reminded me a bit of My Sunshine Away, one of my favorite books of 2015.

Plot Summary

When Richard (aka “Rocky”) was eight years old, his rebellious older half-brother, Paul, disappears without explanation, setting off a chain of events that impact their family and community in rural Spencerville, Virginia.

Why I Read It

Rory at Fourth Street Review (my go-to source for Grit Lit recommendations) brought this novel to my attention via her Debut Novels to Look For: Early 2016 list. I haven’t seen many reviews from the bloggers I follow (yet), but I would LOVE for this one to get some more attention!

Major Themes

Coming of age, bonds between brothers, dysfunctional families

What I Liked

  • While I wouldn’t call this debut novel “Grit Lit”, it is a top-notch Southern coming of age story that reminded me a bit of My Sunshine Away, one of my favorite books of last year. Like My Sunshine Away, there is “action” and suspense in this story, but it really serves as a vehicle for Rocky’s coming of age, not the other way around.
  • I loved the focus on the imperfect bond between brothers and the healthy dose of the type of teenage boy hijinks that went on before the world became more uptight.

All I knew was that Paul was effortlessly cool – that even the people who scowled at him plainly desired and envied both his beauty and his indifference. Naturally I worshipped him.

  • But, what really made this book sparkle for me was Rocky, the narrator’s, voice. It’s just the right mix of awkward teenage boy (i.e. Rocky tries to flirt with a girl by making her a mix tape!), innocence, angst, and calculation.

We must all recall the incomprehensible spite of the schoolyard bully: the random selectivity of his malice, the helpless acquiescence of his prey. Perhaps the worst of all, the pathetic betrayal of the victim’s so-called friends, who stand aside or perhaps even laugh and jeer, loyalty being a far less powerful instinct than self-preservation.

What I Didn’t Like

  • I would have liked to lop off the last 10 pages or so of this book. The story ended beautifully for me – a perfect balance of wrapping things up and letting some questions remain unanswered. Then, there came another ten pages of neat and tidy updates on where all the characters ended up…which read much like an Epilogue (but it wasn’t) or a high school yearbook’s Senior Predictions section.
  • If you think you might want to read this book, I would avoid reading the publisher’s blurb (or at least the second paragraph). It includes way too much information for my taste!

A Defining Quote

At some point, every boy feels the urge to lash out at something, to be cruel and violent, to curse the world for its frail humanity. But only a few have the will – be it born of courage or recklessness, folly or sublime wisdom – to act and, by their action, transform themselves. They will pay for their courage, of course; the world does not treat its others lightly. But so will the rest of us – the ones who love them – haunted as we are by our envy of their bright, burning beauty, which we can bear neither to look at nor to turn away from.

Good for People Who Like…

Southern Fiction, gorgeous writing, coming of age, teenage angst, small town life, secrets/betrayals

Other Books You May Like

Southern fiction with a similar narrator’s voice:
My Sunshine Away by M.O. Walsh

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Read One, Skip One: Sweetland and Along the Infinite Sea

December 17, 2015 Mini Book Reviews 28

After having a bit of an unexpected hangover from Sweetland and having trouble settling into my next book, I thought a recovery book was in order. I was sure Along the Infinite Sea would hit the spot and was planning my next installment of my Alcohol & Advil feature. Alas, Alcohol & Advil will have to wait…

Sweetland, Michael CrummeySweetland by Michael Crummey
Fiction (Released January 19, 2015)
336 Pages
Bottom Line: Read it.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Purchased

Plot Summary: As the tiny island town of Sweetland deteriorates, the Canadian government offers the remaining residents a monetary package to “resettle” elsewhere, but Moses Sweetland doesn’t want to leave his home.

My Thoughts: Sweetland is an incredibly moving book that slowly crept under my skin before going in an unexpected and intriguing direction. It begins as a portrait of a tiny (and quirky) town before moving into a world where reality is hazy. Some reviews noted that Sweetland‘s Canadian Island dialect takes some getting used to, but it didn’t bother me at all. In fact, I found much of the writing downright gorgeous:

He looked up at the hills surrounding the cove, sunlight making them ring with meltwater. He’d always loved that sound, waited for it each spring. Hearing it made him certain of the place he came from. He’d always felt it was more than enough to wake up here, to look out on these hills. As if he’d long ago been measured and made to the island’s specifications.

Moses Sweetland is a lovable curmudgeon (a character type that gets me every time…see A.J. Fikry!) and the book has a Grumpy Old Men vibe as Moses and his equally eccentric neighbors rib each other day after day. I loved the way Crummey gradually revealed surprising background information about the town’s history and each of its residents…in a way that reminded me a bit of Did You Ever Have A Family. I’m thrilled to have finally been introduced to this Canadian author (thanks, Shannon and Naomi!) and been able to slide Sweetland into my Best Books of 2015 list at the last minute.

Along the Infinite Sea, Beatriz WilliamsAlong the Infinite Sea by Beatriz Williams
Historical Fiction (Released November 3, 2015)
461 Pages
Bottom Line: Skip it.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Publisher (Putnam) via NetGalley

Plot Summary: In 1966, pregnant and alone Pepper Schuyler sells the Mercedes Roadster she found in a shed at her sister’s Cape Cod house to the mysterious Annabelle Dommerich, who has quite the story of her own.

My Thoughts: It literally pains me to write this review because Beatriz Williams is one of my go-to authors for light, but entertaining page turners about family drama and wealthy people behaving badly. Along the Infinite Sea is the third book in the Schuyler sister series, focusing on Pepper, and unfortunately, my least favorite of the three.

The story is told in duel perspectives and timelines: one focusing on Pepper in 1966 and one focusing on Annabelle’s experience of falling in love during the lead-up to World War II in the 1930’s. Williams has surprised me with family drama twists and turns in all her previous books, but the plot twists in Along the Infinite Sea just weren’t that eye-opening. And, while Williams usually includes some romance in her books, it felt a bit heavy-handed and drawn out here.

For anyone interested in trying Beatriz Williams (and I think you should if you like family drama page turners!),  I recommend starting with A Hundred Summers, one of my fall-time favorite beach reads.

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Alcohol & Advil: Did You Ever Have A Family & The Royal We

October 8, 2015 Mini Book Reviews 39

 

Alcohol and Advil Literary Style


Welcome to my new feature, Alcohol & Advil (many thanks to my good friend, Barrett, for thinking up this catchy name), where I’ll pair a book likely to cause a “reading hangover” (i.e. the alcohol) with a recovery book (i.e. the Advil)!

For me, the “alcohol” is usually books that I either absolutely loved or books that punched me in the gut in an emotionally depleting way (and sometimes both!). I’ve had two book hangovers so far this year (caused by My Sunshine Away and A Little Life) and, in both cases, I didn’t choose the appropriate “Advil”. But, the third time’s the charm…

The Alcohol

Did You Ever Have A Family, Bill CleggDid You Ever Have A Family by Bill Clegg
Fiction (Released September 8, 2015)
304 Pages
Bottom Line: Read it.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Purchased

Plot Summary: The story of June Reid, who loses her entire family (her daughter and her fiancee, her boyfriend, and her ex-husband) in a horrible tragedy on the night before her daughter’s wedding.

My Thoughts: The hype (both from bloggers and awards committees) surrounding Clegg’s debut novel made me nervous to read it…but, it surpassed all my expectations! Did You Ever Have A Family is a mostly character-driven story about family (obviously), small-town life, prejudice, parent/child relationships, grief, heartache, and regret.

Clegg’s ability to draw me into the story emotionally was what really made me love this book. I cared deeply about what had happened to these people and how they’d ended up in such a tragic place. Clegg reveals the family’s backstory and the aftermath of the tragedy in drips and drabs, causing my heart to break a little more each time a new tidbit is added to the mix. I’d even venture to say that I was as emotionally invested as I was in A Little Life, and that’s saying something. 

This is only the third book this year that’s given me a “book hangover” and I feel confident it will be one of my favorites of 2015. I’m also adding it to my Book Club Recommendations List.

The Advil

The Royal We, Heather Cocks and Jessica MorganThe Royal We by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan
Fiction (Released April 7, 2015)
465 Pages
Bottom Line: Read it.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Purchased

Plot Summary: Inspired by the real life courtship of Prince William and Kate Middleton, American Rebecca “Bex” Porter embarks on a relationship with Prince Nicholas after meeting at Oxford.

My Thoughts: I’d heard this novel was a fun read from both bloggers and real life friends alike. So, when I was wallowing in my Did You Ever Have A Family hangover and saw The Royal We pop up as a $3.99 Kindle deal, I pounced.

It’s fun, cheeky, and romantic (but not overly cheesy)! It pokes fun at the idiosyncrasies of the British monarchy (I love any book that refers to the fictional Prince Charles as a “douchelord”…who knew he had so much in common with Scott Disick?!), but it’s equally heartfelt about the emotions that go along with existing in a gilded royal cage.

I loved seeing the behind-the-scenes rigamarole that an incoming member of the royal family goes through to be appropriately trained for duty. Obviously, who knows how much of what happened to the fictional Bex is actually true, but speculating is half the fun. Some elements of the novel obviously depart from real life (i.e. Bex is American and she and her sister, Lacey, are twins), others mimic reality, and some are tantalizing mysteries. The Royal We is a great choice if you’re looking for something light…be it a recovery book or a beach read.

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My Southern Journey by Rick Bragg: Dare I Compare Him to Pat Conroy?

September 18, 2015 Nonfiction 17

My Southern Journey, Rick BraggNonfiction – Essays
Released September 15, 2015
256 Pages
Bottom Line: Read it.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Publisher (Oxmoor House) via NetGalley

Headline

Bragg shows off Pat Conroy-caliber writing in his essay collection about Southern life. My Southern Journey is going on my Great Books Under 300 Pages lists.

Plot Summary

A collection of Bragg’s previously published (in various magazines and newspapers) articles about Southern life and culture.

Why I Read It

I loved Bragg’s memoir, All Over But the Shoutin’, about growing up in rural Alabama and got to meet him at BEA this year (where he autographed my book with “To Sarah, Who gets it”, which obviously warmed my heart).

Major Themes

The South (duh!), food, traditions, family lore, football, cultural observations

What I Liked

  • Bragg’s introduction to this collection is a thing of beauty. He shares that he tries to avoid writing about the South in cliches (i.e. “no pig pickin’, frat parties, or cutthroat beauty contests”) and he truly does accomplish this. Dare I say that his writing about the South reminds me of Pat Conroy’s (for regular readers of this blog, you know this is a huge compliment from me)? And, a minute after this comparison occurred to me, Bragg mentioned having dinner with Conroy. I thought, “of course.”
  • Bragg showcases his many talents in this collection: he’s a master at stringing words together in interesting ways, a storyteller, a travel writer, a food writer, an arbiter of culture, and a sports journalist.
  • His essays range wildly in tone, from the heartfelt to nostalgic to funny (i.e. his mother becoming a crazy cat lady, his forays into carpentry) to incredibly insightful.
  • There’s a nice, big dose of college football commentary (well, Alabama and the SEC to be specific), which is also quite a presence in our house (see my 8 Books for Football Fans post).

What I Didn’t Like

  • There is some repetition among the essays. Some small anecdotes and background is repeated across multiple essays. This is to be expected given the essays were originally published as stand-alones, but I would have liked to see some minor edits for the purpose of this book.

A Defining Quote

People ask me, often, why I love a place so imperfect, where the mosquitoes dance between lukewarm rain and the summer heat turns every stretch of blacktop into a shimmering river of hot tar, where the football-mad fling curses and sometimes punches and forget their raising on call-in radio, and the politicians seem intent on a return to 1954. I merely answer: How do you not love a place where the faded beads from a parade six years before still hang in the branches of live oak trees.

Good for People Who Like…

Gorgeous writing, small-town life, Southern culture, sports

Other Books You May Like

All Over But the Shoutin’ by Rick Bragg
The Death of Santini by Pat Conroy
The Pat Conroy Cookbook: Recipes of My Life by Pat Conroy

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