Thursday, January 22, 2015

Just Jennifer

13 Things Mentally Strong People Do: Take Back Your Power, Embrace Change, Face Your Fears and Train Your Brain for Happiness by Amy Morin (William Morrow)

Clinical social worker and psychotherapist Amy Morin offers a new take on the self-help genre by focusing on mental strength and the behaviors that cause us not to be mentally strong, along with strategies to change our behaviors in order to be mentally strong.  A checklist that accompanies each of the 13 “Don’ts” (which include: waste time feeling sorry for yourself, give away your power, dwell on the past, shy away from change and expect immediate results) to help narrow down which behaviors we most often engage in and exhibit, allowing readers to focus on areas where they feel they need more help.  Each chapter includes a brief anecdote or case study, the checklist, an explanation as to why we might engage in the specific behavior, why the behavior is a problem, more examples and some helpful illustrative points, ending with a list of “What’s Helpful” and one of “What is not Helpful”.  Morin focuses on developing a self-awareness and a consciousness that we are free to make our own choices and that often the “negative choices” seem easier, but in fact, take more energy than positive behaviors and choices once learned.  Commonsense advice and strategies presented in a clear, straight-forward manner make this book accessible and easy to navigate, allowing readers to focus on chapters pertinent to their current situation.  Take the How Mentally Strong Are You? quiz.  Click here for a clip from the audiobook or here for a video introduction to the book.

Just Jennifer

My Sunshine Away by M.O. Walsh (February 10, 2015)

A young boy’s teenage years, in fact, most of the teenage years of a group of children in a Baton Rouge, Louisiana neighborhood, are colored by the rape of one of the girls, a rape that goes unsolved.  The fourteen-year-old narrator has been in love with Lindy Simpson, the girl from across the street with long blonde hair and long legs from bicycle riding a track, for as long as he can remember.  Lindy has never returned his love and adoration, with the exception of the year immediately following the rape, as she turns to him with a strange type of friendship.  As the narrator relates his story to an unseen listener, he relives that summer with great detail including the fact that he was considered a suspect.  The narrator is determined to solve Lindy’s rape at all costs, so much so that his sister’s death and his parents’ subsequent divorce have very little effect on him and he almost misses his teenage years because of his obsession, first with Lindy and then with the crime.  This new voice in Southern gothic fiction details the atmosphere of a sultry Louisiana summer, captures the essence of being a teenage boy in love and is able to tell the story in retrospect with a feeling of immediacy when everything is new and unknown rather than with retrospection.  A haunting and tender coming of age story, when the rape is finally solved, it is more of a “huh” moment rather than an “aha” moment.   

Just Jennifer

Hush Hush by Laura Lippman (William Morrow, February 2015)
Ten years ago, Melisandre Harris Dawes parked her car with her two-month-old daughter in it and sat on the shores of the Patapsco River to wait for her to die.  Melisandre, after a mistrial, was found not guilty by reason of criminal insanity; she left the country and relinquished custody of her two surviving daughters to their father who has subsequently remarried and has a new baby boy.  Melisandre has returned to Baltimore hoping to reunite with her estranged daughters, now fourteen and seventeen, and plans for the reunion to be part of the documentary she is making.  Former reporter, now private investigator, Tess Monaghan has been hired to Tyner Gray, Melisandre’s attorney and Tess’s new uncle through marriage, to help set up security for Melisandre.  Tess, a relatively new mother, finds Melisandre repulsive and disturbing and security really isn’t her bailiwick, but she can use the business so agrees to take the job with the help of her new partner, retired Baltimore PD homicide detective Sandy Sanchez.  As Melisandre is by association, Tess’s client, Tess tries to understand the woman so she can best assess her security needs, but Tess just can’t seem to figure Melisandre out: was she truly insane ten years ago or was she just, as Tess feels she is now, a master manipulator who feels she is entitled to everything just because she wants it.  Now Melisandre finds herself under suspicion of murder again, but is she insane this time or just cold and calculating?  At the same time, Tess finds herself being stalked by someone who is increasingly angry and begin to reassess her and her family’s safety as she is continuously amazed by how much she can love her three-year-old daughter, yet how quickly she can become frustrated by her.
Tess is a wonderfully complex character and has grown and changed throughout this long running series.  Her daughter has a personality all her own and adds another dimension to Tess as she frustrates and delights.  Tess is no nonsense, but always professional which makes this assignment very difficult for her as she does not like her client, nor can she even understand neither her motives for anything nor her actions.  Punctuated by the interviews being conducted for the documentary Melisandre is funding, the story of her daughter’s death, subsequent mistrial and trial are revealed with details that cast doubt on everything and form a kaleidoscopic puzzle whose pieces do not fall into place until the final interview with Melisandre who may just not be as much of a monster as Tess would have liked her to be.

Disturbing, but wholly absorbing, this latest Tess Monaghan novel is another satisfying read for long time fans of the series as well as for readers just discovering this dynamic character for the first time.

Just Jennifer

Bones and All by Camille DeAngelis (St. Martin’s Press)

Maren Yearly is not your typical sixteen-year-old.  If you show her too much affection, she’ll eat you.  Her mother has tried to hide this secret, moving to a new state after each episode; when Maren turns sixteen, though, her mother leaves her with a birth certificate bearing the name of the father Maren never knew and several hundred dollars in cash.  Maren decides to search for her father, deep down inside knowing what she will find, but finding many surprises along her journey, including the fact that she is not alone with her proclivities and that eating comes in all forms and shapes and that maybe, just maybe, she is not as unusual as she thinks she is.  Maren’s trip to find her father is also one of self-discovery as she realizes she will have to live on her own as her own person and make her own way in the world.  This coming of age story is truly original and not nearly as gruesome as it sounds. Readers will root for Maren to find her family and some answers; their hearts will break as they realize that Maren will never be able to have “normal” relationships, but will cheer as she makes her own decisions, finds a life that suits her and is able to come to terms with her special personality traits.  

Just Jennifer

Dorothy Parker Drank Here by Ellen Meister (Putnam, February 24, 2015)
The second book to feature the acerbic wit and wisdom of Dorothy Parker not only lives up to its predecessor, it exceeds it in bringing to life this unforgettable character and all the elegance of mid-twentieth century around the fabled Round Table in the Algonquin Hotel.  In life (in the novel) Mrs. Parker signed Percy Coates’s guest book at the hotel, a book that once signed, offers the signee the chance to remain in this realm after their death, in corporal form if they wish as long as the book is kept open.  Over the years, Mrs. Parker has seen her friends and compatriots from Mr. Benchley to Groucho Marx stop for one last drink before heading to the white light, a fate which Mrs. Parker vociferously eschews.  Only Mrs. Parker has chosen to stay behind and now is getting lonely but knows where she might find a kindred spirit:  several floors up the reclusive author Ted Shriver is in hiding while he waits to dying from an operable brain tumor; if Mrs. Parker could just get Shriver to sign the book, she is certain she will have a companion for, well not quite life, but the in-between time.  Shriver was an ascending literary star in the 1970’s when a plagiarism scandal sent the author into hiding with nary a word of explanation, defense or apology.  Mrs. Parker isn’t the only one looking for an audience with Shriver, however: a young television producer, Norah Wolfe, is searching for a guest that will save her talk show from certain death and she is pretty sure that Shriver is that guest.  But, as with Mrs. Parker’s request to sign the guestbook, Shriver flat out refuses Norah but she is determined.  When she and Mrs. Parker meet, they each think the other will be the key to getting Shriver to agree to both their requests and the two form an unusual partnership that sends the pair chasing through Manhattan and into a dusty attic in Connecticut looking for the enticement Shriver needs to be agreeable.  But Shriver, and other players, have their own agendas and secrets to keep, sending things wildly out of control, leaving Norah fearful she will soon be with a job and Mrs. Parker facing eternity alone.  All the while Norah and Mrs. Parker are on their quest, another party is seeking to get her hands on the guestbook which could have devastating consequences all around were it to happen.

With uncanny accuracy, Ellen Meister captures not only the voice of Dorothy Parker but her fabled essence.  Tidbits about the famed Algonquin Round Table are liberally sprinkled throughout the narrative without disrupting the plot; she easily intersperses Mrs. Parker’s amazement at, and often contempt for, new developments since her heyday.  Norah’s number one motive is clearly saving the show and her job, but readers will quickly guess her ulterior motive in meeting Ted and will admire her restraint at keeping her personal secret while she tries to book Shriver on the show, a coup that will benefit many in addition to her.  Plenty of publishing lore, big egos and delicate personalities populate this delightful look at the Algonquin Hotel and its residents as Meister deftly combines legend and lore, fact and fiction past and present, bringing it all to life and rendered with a lot of love in all its many forms. 

Just Jennifer

A Small Indiscretion by Jan Ellison (Random House, January 27, 2015)

Annie Black has put her nineteenth winter, a winter spent with reckless abandon in London, far behind her.  Living in San Francisco, she is now almost forty years old, has a successful career and business as a lighting designer, is married and has three children.  An anonymous letter brings a photo in the mail one day, making Annie realize she hasn’t put things as far in the past as she thinks; there are things that happened that winter details about which she is still unsure.  Annie finds a strong pull back to London and back to a past that holds the secrets, some of which will help reveal recent events in Annie’s life, some of which will cause the life she has built to unravel at an alarming rate.  This family drama is written with more a sense of curiosity than urgency about Annie’s past; so much so that when a secret is revealed it is startling both to Annie and the reader.  Ellison has carefully crafted the details of both her narrative and her characters, even choosing Annie’s career as a lighting designer, someone who illuminates and sets the mood, even as she keeps herself and others in the dark about her past.  The narrative is effectively told in Jane’s alternating voices, first person for her time in London, but then directly addressing someone, telling them the story that has led to their present, almost as if it is a confession.  Annie’s story is compelling and addictive, Annie’s secrets shocking, their effects lasting, but perhaps not irreversible.  

Just Jennifer

The Life I Left Behind by Colette McBeth (Minotaur, February 24, 2015)

Six years ago, Melody Pieterson was a vibrant young woman until she was attacked and left for dead, her friend and neighbor David convicted of the crime.  Since then, Melody has become introverted, trusting no one, hiding behind locked doors and fences, from everyone, including and except herself.  Shortly after David is released from prison, another young woman is attacked in a similar way; but Eve Elliot was not as lucky as Mel (as she now calls herself).   Now Eve’s ghost remains and tells her story, alternating with Mel’s as the two young women form an unusual alliance to catch a killer.  As Mel learns more about Eve’s murder, she begins to think that David was not responsible for the attack on either woman, an idea that leaves her more unsettled than ever, but also oddly resolved to uncover the truth, something that Mel finds liberating as she finds her voice and herself once again.  Haunting and suspenseful, McBeth’s elegant storytelling is by twists and turns surprising, healing and redemptive and while some readers may see the end coming, McBeth makes the trip more than worth it.

Just Jennifer

Before He Finds Her by Michael Kardos (Mysterious Press, February 2015)
Melanie Denison has been living in the West Virginia trailer of her aunt and uncle for the past fifteen years, since the night her father Ramsey Miller killed her mother in the New Jersey shore town of Silver Bay; it was assumed that he meant to kill his daughter, then called Meg, who was rescued and swept off to live in the Witness Protection Program as Ramsey was never caught.  Melanie has never been allowed to do the things most children and teenagers do, including things as simple as school events and surfing the Internet.  As Melanie approaches her eighteenth birthday, she begins to year for things she considers to be “normal” and convinces her aunt and uncle to allow her to finish out her schooling at the public high school and then to attend the local community college.  In spite of, or perhaps due to, the sheltered life she has led, Melanie begins a relationship with a young teacher from the high school she graduated from, and becomes pregnant.  No longer wanting to live hidden in the shadows and not wanting her child to grow up the way she did, Melanie confides in Phillip and then sets out for Silver Bay to uncover the truth of what happened that night, almost daring her father to find her, not knowing the secrets that trouble her parents individually and as a couple, and not knowing the secrets she will be stirring up, but willing to take the chance if it means freedom for herself and her unborn child.

A tightly written plot, even as things unravel, that illustrates the closer someone is to a situation, the less clearly it can been seen and how easily people often take the word of someone they love at face value and how quickly all of that can fall apart.  Effectively told, the story of Ramsey Miller unfolds in two ways: from the stories told to Melanie, the truth she believes, and in flashbacks to the days leading up Allison Miller’s murder.  Pitch perfect writing, no detail overlooked or extraneous, make this not only a satisfying thriller, but a story of familial love, love of self and the families we create ourselves, and what happens when that love is used as a weapon of fear rather than an instrument of hope and encouragement. 

Just Jennifer

The Kind Worth Killing by Peter Swanson (William Morrow, February 2015)
In classic Hitchcock or Patricia Highsmith style, Peter Swanson’s sophomore offering (after The Girl with a Clock for a Heart) starts when two apparent strangers meet in the lounge at Heathrow airport, share some gin martinis and begin to plot a murder: Ted Severson thought he was happily married and that this beautiful wife Miranda loved him for more than his millions of dollars.  Not so, he learns when he sees Miranda and the general contractor who is building the Severson’s---at least Miranda’s---dream house in Maine, having sex while going over the plans.  Now Ted is angry, angry enough to tell Lily, the young woman he thinks he has just met for the first time, that he would like to kill his wife.  Lily takes Ted at this word and offers to help make Ted’s dream come true: but, as with many things in life, this is an offer that is too good to be true. Lily has a past---and present---full of secrets, secrets that Ted should have taken the time to learn before agreeing to let this beguiling young woman help set up a plot to murder his wife and starting to play her dangerous and deadly game.  With a plot as intelligent and graceful as Lily herself, readers will quickly find themselves down the rabbit hole, not sure where the next twist or turn is or when it will be coming.  As the plot unfolds, secrets are revealed and new plots begin to formulate inside the players’ heads----or do they? Have there been deeper, more devious plots all along?  Reality and opportunity soon become impossible to separate in this breathtaking journey.  Do not start this book unless you have plenty of time to see it through until the last surprising sentence that will leave evil grins on the faces of many.

Just Jennifer

A Murder of Magpies by Judith Flanders (Minotaur, February 2015)
Samantha “Sam” Clair is a seasoned London book editor with a wry, often sardonic, sense of humor.  She is not only a capable editor, but can handily deal with all the various personalities and egos she runs into from her steady stream of office assistants, many of whom have yet to master the vagaries of the alphabet enough to perform basic filing tasks, to Prima Donna authors and her colleagues, editors who consider their acquisitions far superior to Sam’s more commercial women’s fiction.  At forty, Sam’s personal life is as bland and banal as her work life is hectic and glamorous (not) save the occasional dinner party given by her unstoppable, unflappable mother, a high-powered attorney.  But all this changes when police officer Jake Field arrives at Sam’s office asking about a manuscript that may or may not be missing and that may or may not have been stolen from a courier who was killed in a hit and run.  Sam isn’t too interested in the whole thing at first, she never knows when manuscripts may arrive and there are most often enough multiple paper and electronic copies floating around that it wouldn’t make sense to try and steal one copy.  When she realizes that the manuscript in question is a scandalous tell-all about the life and murder---uncovering other illegal activities along the way---or a Spanish fashion designer, written by gossip monger and dirt digger extraordinaire Kit Lovell, who is also one of Sam’s favorite authors, Sam perks up.  There is a good deal in that manuscript that will open Kit, and in turn the publisher up to possible libel and slander suits, but Sam isn’t worried about that, Legal always vets everything carefully and will deal with that.  What does concern her is that Kit misses a meeting and seems to simply vanish into thin air.  Jake Field isn’t impressed at first as Kit is a bit of a flake (Sam once found six months’ worth of not listened to voice messages on his mobile phone) but Sam is adamant and using Kit’s book as a cover story but also as a road map, begins to follow Kit’s trail, a trail that leads her into corporate intrigue and corruption, government investigations and right into the hands of a crazed murderer.

Laugh aloud funny, Sam’s dry wit and wry observations coupled with her mother’s no nonsense approach---and arsenal of skeleton keys---and insider secrets from the publishing world, including a comedy of errors involving the misunderstood manuscript of one of Sam’s longtime authors, along with a smart, clever mystery, make this first novel from Victorian expert Judith Flanders a slam dunk for all mystery readers.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Just Jennifer

The Year of Reading Dangerously: How Fifty Great Books (And Two Not-So-Great Ones) Saved My Life by Andy Miller (Harper Perennial, December 2014)


In the tradition of Henry Miller’s (no relation) The Books in My Life, editor and writer Andy Miller writes homage to his love of reading by reading classic novels, and some not so classic.  He sets his sights high, fifty pages each day and begins with Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita.  Some books he is rereading (Of Human Bondage) as he didn’t finish them the first time he tried them; others are books he has said over the years he read (but didn’t really) and some find their way on to his “List of Betterment”.  Miller had planned to start with a dozen or so books, but to his chagrin, he had missed many more classics along his way to forty than he thought (Jane Eyre, War and Peace, Don Quixote) and his list soon numbered around fifty titles.  With a fair amount of self-depiction along the way, Miller talks about his successes (he was surprised to learn he enjoyed Middlemarch) and his less than favorite books (The Dice Man by Luke Rhinehart) honestly.  While not meant as a literary criticism, this book offers some unusual insights into the classics and not so classics: who else could successfully compare Moby Dick to Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code.  The book is filled with quotes and footnotes for the true book geek and three appendices in the back of the book include Miller’s List of Betterment, The Hundred Books that Influenced [Me] Most and Books [I] Still Want to Read offer more books to be added to any to-be-read or re-read list.  Readers can go to his website: www.mill-i-am.com for updates on his ongoing project.  Anyone who has ever wanted to embark on a reading project will find much in here to enjoy.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Just Jennifer

Clean Slate: A Cookbook & Guide: Reset Your Health, Detox Your Body & Feel Your Best (Editors of Martha Stewart Living)

The holidays will soon be over and the new year upon us; many people will use this as a starting point and vow to eat healthier throughout the coming year.  But where & when to start?  Clean Slate is a good choice, even if it is the middle of March when people decide to revamp their eating habits and lifestyle.  Filled with easy to understand advice, lists of “super foods” presented in an accessible way, a 3-day or 21-day detox plan and almost a hundred recipes that use ingredients that are easily found in most supermarkets and that readers may already have in the cupboard, Clean Slate will have readers back on track in no time.  The recipes are clearly written with a bit of explanation as to which benefits each star ingredient will provide.  A section with two dozen juices and smoothies will offer a variety of choices: detoxify, recipes with anti-inflammatory properties, energizing and hydrating, and will inspire readers to try new combinations.  Recipes are labelled vegan, dairy-, nut- or gluten-free as appropriate for people on special diets.  A recipe chart in the order of the recipes indicates which of these recipes has each property.  A thorough source list includes not only where readers can find equipment and ingredients, but websites with useful dietary and healthful information to assist readers in starting a new eating plan.  The Martha Stewart Living trademark clean design translates well in this cookbook with simple type and inviting pictures.  The only thing that is slightly disconcerting is that the attribution to the nutritionists who vetted the information is tucked in the back, two-thirds of the way through the acknowledgements.   
FTC Disclaimer: I received this book from the Blogging for Books program in exchange for this review.


Thursday, December 18, 2014

Just Jennifer

Novel Interiors by Lisa Borgnes Giramonti, Photographs by Ivan Terestchenko (Potter Style)

Designer Lisa Borgnes Giramonti has found and restaged rooms that are reminiscent of over sixty novels and invites readers to take inspiration from her groupings: British Cozy Cottage Charm (Dickens, Austen and Gaskell), more structured, formal rooms (Wharton and James), a more casual, outdoorsy approach (Willa Cather), glitzy and glamorous (who else but Fitzgerald), bold and a bit chaotic (Dinesen or Katherine Mansfield) or dramatic (Wilde and Proust) or following her examples, find your own styke from your favorite author or novel.  Lavishly illustrated and heavily peppered with literary quotes, the “how-to” text may appear a little sparse unless you’ve first read the foreword that explains these rooms and photos are meant to be starting points rather than step-by-step instructions to help you design the room of your dreams and comfort.  Each chapter begins with a few brief sentences to set the tone and concludes with “Finishing Touches” such as embroidered door hangings and brass samovars in “Anything Goes”.  “Living au Natural” includes a section on how to plant a medicinal potted garden and a list of glamorous cordials is included in “Oh, the Glamour of It All”. 
A chapter after the rooms lists the authors, their novels and what specifically about each inspired Giramonti.  A thorough Source appendix gives readers ideas where to find furnishings and accessories of the periods, though not the specific items found in the photographs.  Location credits are listed alphabetically by the residents’ last names and are mostly found in California, though one location can be found in nearby Bernardsville, though it is up to the reader to determine which one it is.  The most frustrating part of this well-indexed book of inspiration is all the interesting and enticing shelves of books shot too far away too allow most of the spines to be readable.   A book that you will be able to turn to time and time again for either inspiration or just entertainment.   
FTC Disclaimer: I received this book from the Blogging for Books program in exchange for this review.


Saturday, November 29, 2014

Just Jennifer

Vanessa and her Sister by Priya Parmar (Ballantine Books, January 2015)


This novel, depicting the lives of the four young adult Stephen siblings, Adrian, Thoby, Vanessa (later Bell) and Virginia (later Woolf) living parentless in London at the turn of the 20th century, in sympathy with each other, creating a salon-like world, drawing in artists, writers and keen observers of society and culture.  Beginning with a letter from Virginia to Vanessa, written in 1912 and asking forgiveness for an unknown offense, the narrative then shifts seven years earlier where, much like Woolf’s fabled Mrs. Dalloway, the story begins with Vanessa making a list for an evening the siblings are hosting.  Told with diary-like entries, telegrams and notes between other players (notably Lytton Strachey, Clive Bell and Leonard Woolf), readers are given a glimpse into the everyday lives of the men and women who made up the Bloomsbury Group.  In her second novel, Parmar focuses mainly on the relationship between Vanessa and Virginia, though told from Vanessa’s point of view she is the more completely drawn character.  Virginia’s mental illness is addressed as are her, and those of her brothers’, odd proclivities that have fascinated readers and scholars for decades.  As Vanessa tries to take care of her sister, she learns she must look out for herself as well, finally succumbing to Clive Bell’s proposals of marriage the third time, only learning too late how deep Virginia’s jealousies of her lie and how naively she has been looking at her life.  This is an enchanting and intimate look at a cast of characters that were larger than life, and remain so in the retelling and revisiting of stories.  Readers not well steeped in Bloomsbury lore will find the Cast of Characters presented at the front of the book of enormous help.  Parmar invites us to be flies on the wall, witnesses to these famous lives; gorgeous prose with a heart breaking ending brings these characters to life with a unique perspective. 

Just Jennifer

Before I Go by Colleen Oakley (January 2015)


Daisy Richmond is twenty-seven and has been cancer free for three years:  she is finishing her master’s degree, her husband his veterinary science degree and she is trying to stay as healthy as possible.  A routine follow-up scan finds that not only has her cancer returned, her body is now riddled with an aggressive stage IV cancer, including a tumor in her brain, and she may only have six months to live.  Reeling with the idea that she may not live out the year, Daisy becomes confused and overwhelmed, especially with the medical decisions she musts face.  Looking for something on which to focus, perhaps even control, she focuses on Jack who may be an outstanding vet and all-around charming good guy but who she feels, needs someone, like herself, to take care of him and navigate daily life.  Daisy, with the help of her best friend Kayleigh, throws herself into finding a new wife for Jack, not realizing he won’t be the only one hurting and missing Daisy after she’s gone.  During the process of finding a new wife for Jack, Daisy begins grieving her marriage, and perhaps herself, realizing that maybe shutting Jack out and planning for him when she is gone may not be the best way to spend the time she has remaining, and that maybe, just maybe, she doesn’t want Jack to find a replacement wife for her too soon, and maybe, neither does Jack.

Just Jennifer

Fear the Darkness by Becky Masterman (January 20, 2015)

Former FBI agent Brigid Quinn is adjusting to retirement and to marriage to not quite former priest and philosopher Carlo when she learns that her younger sister has died from complications from MS.  Brigid had promised Marilyn that Marilyn’s daughter Gemma-Kate could live with Brigid and Carlo to establish residency in Arizona so the seventeen-year-old could attend college at instate rate; Brigid, who never had children cannot and does not fathom the changes that are in store for her when the teenager enters her life.  Brigid continues to work as a private investigator and agrees to look into the death of the fourteen year old son of Jacqui Nielson and her husband Tim the previous year.  Joe drowned in the family’s swimming pool and the death was ruled in accident, something Jacqui does not believe.  At first, Brigid doesn’t realize what a hornet’s nest she is stirring up, but after one of Pugs eats a poisonous toad she gets suspicious of everyone around her, including and especially her niece who gets involved with the group of boys who were friends of Joe’s.  When Brigid begins experiencing physical ailments similar to many neurological disorders including Parkinson’s she becomes concerned and confused, and after her church congregation drinks coffee tainted with anti-freeze she wonders if she is crazy or if someone is after her.  But sometimes, what we need to see is right in front of us and Brigid may be asking the wrong questions of the wrong people and may not realize it until it is too late.  Sharply drawn characters punctuate a quickly paced narrative.  Brigid’s worsening physical condition and what it does to her mentally, may be uncomfortable for many readers as it rings very true to life.  Carlo and others in her life are supportive of her and her frustration is palpable as she knows what she needs is just beyond her grasp.  

Just Jennifer

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins (Riverhead Books, January 13, 2015)


Traveling to London on the train each day, Rachel sees a couple sitting on their terrace and imagines the perfect life for them.  The day after Rachel sees the wife kissing another man, she reads that the wife has disappeared.  Rachel, whose own life is built on secrets and lies, is desperate to contact the police and the husband to tell them about the man she saw in the garden.  Events quickly spiral out of control for Rachel and she knows there is something locked in her memory, just out of her reach, something that would uncover what really happened the night of the disappearance if she can just remember.  Rachel tries to sort events and memories in her head, attempting to distinguish between the lies and the truths, sinking ever further into a place from rich she might not be able to return.  This first novel is fast paced and gripping with a classic noir feel to it; a book not to be started when there is not enough time to rea it through to the very satisfying, unsettling conclusion. 

Just Jennifer


My Father’s Wives by Mike Greenberg (January 2015)

Jonathan Sweetwater appears to have it all: a career he loves that provides him with more than enough money to live comfortably in Connecticut, a son and daughter who are, to his mind, perfect and a beautiful wife, Claire, with whom he feels he has a mature, adult relationship based on love and mutual trust.  The only thing that is missing from Jon’s life was a relationship with his father both when he was a child and as an adult and now that Percy Sweetwater is dead, there is no hope of every reconnecting with the man who left his life with Jon was nine years old.  Percy became a serial husband, marrying five more women after Jon’s mother who seemed to take Percy in stride and did the best she could to raise the man she did.  Jon comes home from work one day and finds a man and woman in his guest bedroom (the one with the good sheets); he cannot see their faces but fears that the woman is his Claire.  His world shaken, Jonathan decides that he must learn more about his father in order to understand more about himself and possibly his marriage and sets out to find his father’s ex-wives to see if he can figure things out.  During this journey and Jon’s travels, he learns things about his employer, who he thought he knew and with whom he thought he had a more than cordial relationship, and most importantly, he learns about himself and what he learns will make him a better father, husband and man.  

Just Jennifer

One Step Too Far by Tina Seskis (William Morrow, January 2015)


In this first novel, Tina Seskis takes her main character, Emily Coleman, now Cat, on a journey that many of us imagine but few ever take.  Emily has left her husband, her family and home behind to start her life over.  The now former attorney rents a room in a London flop house and starts a new job at a London advertising agency where her rise to the top is swift, but on the edge.  With her new friend Angel, Cat manages to keep one step ahead of anyone looking for her, erasing all traces of her past, except for her memories: memories of growing up as a twin in a dysfunctional household and memories of how she thought she had escaped her life growing up when she married her husband.  What Emily cannot escape is the memory of the events that have led to her running away and if she is not careful, it will catch up with her as her present collides with her past and things that Emily thought she had under control spin so far out of control that she may never be able to recover and regain a life that is her own.  Flashbacks are told in the third person while Emily’s present life is related in first person, a very effective technique as readers watch her spiral out of control still held fast by her past.  Emily/Cat is a tough character to get to know as she reveals very little about her present self.  Readers will come up with many variations on what might have caused Emily’s break with her life but few will see the twist that comes.  A little too much detail is given after the big reveal slowing down the pace of the story a bit but wrapping up any loose ends and questions that were remaining.

Just Jennifer

The Wildalone by Krassi Zourkova (William Morrow, January 2015)
Thea Slavin has left her family and native Bulgaria to study piano at Princeton University.  Upon arriving there, she learns she had a sister, Elza, who also attended Princeton fifteen years earlier but died as a freshman under mysterious circumstances, her body disappearing from the funeral home before her parents were able to claim their daughter.  Thea becomes almost as obsessed with the death and disappearance of her sister as she is with her piano lessons but just as quickly becomes by the Estlin brothers, unaware at first that there are two men, but both of whom have become fixated on Thea, the older, Rhys, more so, though the closer the pair gets, the further he holds her back.  As Thea learns more of the mythical world inhabited by Samodiv or Wildalones, she becomes more caught up in her own family’s story, a story from which she may never be able to escape.   This debut is full of Greek mythology, including a professor who was obsessed with Elza’s theories about a vase, Bulgarian folk lore, mysterious, wealthy, seductive strangers and a young woman struggling to reconcile a past she never knew with the future for which she is hoping.  Part fantasy, part romance, this debut novel is smart and full of mythology, Ancient Greek History and Bulgarian folk tales and is entirely captivating and engrossing. 


Saturday, November 22, 2014

Just Jennifer

First Frost by Sarah Addison Allen (St. Martin’s Press, January 2015)

Readers who fell in love with the Waverleys and their magical and mysterious ways will be delighted to be back with them in Bascom, North Carolina.  Claire has been mass producing her herbal candy and is beginning to become worn out and is afraid she may be losing her touch; her sister Sydney is still creating hairstyles that can change your life while Sydney’s teenage daughter Bay has a knack of knowing where and with whom things and people belong, though her hear is breaking because she knows she belongs with Josh Matteson who doesn’t seem to notice her at all.  In the background of the Waverley women is an apple tree that loses its petals at the first frost, only to come back to life and right everything that is topsy-turvy.  A stranger appears in town and threatens to change the Waverley’s family histories, and perhaps their futures, with the secrets he claims to hold.   Beautifully told, full of wistfulness, hope and happiness, Bascom feels like home to all who visit it and the Waverley women like long lost friends. 

Just Jennifer

Death with All the Trimmings by Lucy Burdette (Prime Crime, December 2, 2014)


Key West Key Zest food critic Hayley Snow is fairly certain she will not be having a white Christmas this year, but she is hoping to have a murder-free Christmas so she can spend time with her friends and her family, since her mother Janet has just moved down to Key West with her new boyfriend Sam and has taken Key West by storm working for a catering company, already getting assignments to plan holiday parties.  Hayley loves her mother but is focused on keeping her job and hopes her current assignment, interviewing Key West’s newest chef, transplanted from Manhattan, Edel Waugh, will not only secure her job, but maybe even win her some more notice in the journalism community.  Hayley is a little taken aback when Edel tells her, off the record, that she thinks someone is sabotaging the kitchen at Bistro on the Bight, including changing recipes in Edel’s recipe bible, and wants Hayley to look into it.  It becomes clear when a fire during the annual Key West Christmas parade (complete with Hayley on Key Zest’s float dressed as an elf) burns down Bistro on the Bight that someone has ratcheted up the ante, but when Hayley learns that Edel’s ex-husband and business partner was killed in the fire, determined to be arson, Hayley must gather all her wits and smoke out a killer, a killer that may be closer to Hayley than she guessed, to ensure a good night to all.
In her fifth mystery, Hayley stays as fresh and engaging as ever.  She has adapted to life in Key West, taking care of Miss Gloria on her houseboat and taking Key Zest by storm, ferretting out all the latest food trends and unsung restaurants.  Hayley, proud as she is of her mother, is a little uncertain how Janet’s permanent arrival and residence in Key West will affect her, but helps her mother in her new career as much as possible.  After ending a bad relationship, which landed her in Key West to begin with, Hayley is skittish on the romance front, especially with her boss Wally with whom she is pretty sure she shares a mutual attraction, but doesn’t want to move to quickly and jeopardize their friendship and working relationship.  Hayley’s doggedness and search for the truth serves her well in both her career and her sideline of amateur sleuth.  There may not be a nip in the air this December for Jersey-girl Hayley, but when there’s a murderer on the loose, or a new restaurant in town, Hayley is on the case.   A cameo by Burdette’s first mystery character, Cassie Burdette (from the Golf Lover’s Mysteries written as Roberta Isleib) will be a welcome return for longtime fans and will send others in search of this first series.

Just Jennifer

Billy Joel: The Definitive Biography by Fred Schruers (Crown Publishers)

Since the release of his first album Cold Spring Harbor in 1971, Billy Joel has delighted, fascinated and grown up with legions of loyal fans who feel that he “gets” them with his heartfelt lyrics and haunting melodies.  Music journalist Fred Schruers has been chronicling Joel for many years, interviewing Joel, his friends, family and music colleagues, all culminating in this in depth biography that begins with Joel’s German Jewish roots and a family history that begins with his grandparents leaving Germany to escape Nazi persecution, continues through Billy’s non-traditional family growing up (his father moved back to Europe and had a second family, his mother took in Billy’s cousin after the death of his aunt), his first marriage when he was a young man, his very public marriage and divorce to Christie Brinkley, and his most recent marriage (and divorce) to Katie Lee.  Joel, whose mother was a pianist, took to the instrument at an early age and grew up influenced by the great pop and cult idols of the 1950’s and 1960’s. Joel did most of his own writing into the 1990’s; Joel’s most recognizable single Piano Man was released in 1973 was not his highest ranking single, many of which came from albums released in the early 1980’s.  Joel’s fabled trip to the USSR in 1987, a trip that cost Joel over one million dollars, made Joel one of the first Americans to play in the Soviet Union since the Berlin Wall was erected.  Using the lyrics from many of Joel’s songs, Schruers details not only Joel’s epic career, but the ups and downs of his life from the failed marriages to financial problems, health issues and alcohol problems.  Written in a breezy, journalistic style, this biography is a fast-read with details so vivid you will hear your favorite Billy Joel song (mine is Big Man on Mulberry Street) playing in your head.  Joel has sold over 150 million albums so far, his fans are loyal and his popularity continues as does his unprecedented residency in Madison Square Garden with concerts scheduled thus far through June 2015; an intimate a look at The Piano Man as any one of his songs.
 

Disclaimer: I was provided a free copy of this book by Blogging for Books in exchange for my honest opinion.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Just Jennifer

The Dress Shop of Dreams by Menna Van Praag (Ballantine Books, January 2015)


Etta Spark’s dress shop is on a quiet side street in Cambridge, but women who need Etta’s magic find their way into her shop.  Etta’s dresses have a way of finding the owner who needs them the most, and Etta stitches a little extra magic into each dress, helping the wearer’s dreams come true.  The only people she seems not to be able to help are her twenty-five year old granddaughter Cora and herself.  Etta’s daughter Maggie and her husband were scientists on the verge of a breakthrough that they felt would put an end to world hunger when they were killed in a fire twenty years earlier.  Cora has followed in their scientific footsteps but fancies herself too logical for things such as love and magic.  The young bookstore owner, Walt, a shop or two away has had his cap set for Cora since he was five and she was eight, but has never had the courage to tell Cora.  Etta, who was happily married for many years, still pines for her first love, her true love and decides that Cora’s, and Walt’s, life will not be filled with regrets and what-ifs and takes matters into her own hands, tilting things on an axis where nothing is what it seems nor as it should be as Cora sets off to prove her parents’ deaths were not an accident, but murder.  Filled with sparkle and magic, but most of all heart and love, Van Praag (The House at the End of Hope Street) has once again written an enchanting tale that will provide several hours of enjoyable escape and hopefulness. 

Just Jennifer

Five by Ursula Archer (Minotaur Books, December 2014)


Fans of Scandinavian crime fiction can now look toward to Austria and Detective Beatrice Kaspary for their next obsession.  A young woman is found murdered in a cow pasture; on her feet are fresh tattoos, an odd, but vaguely familiar, combination of letters, numbers and symbols  Beatrice recognizes the alpha numeric sequence as map coordinates and enters the world of geocaching with her partner Florin Wenninger.  In place of the usual trinkets found by geocachers, Beatrice and Florin find severed body parts, all belonging to the same corpse; with each cache they find a twisted clue that leads them to someone who unknowingly has information that provides the next set of coordinates bringing the pair ever closer to a malicious and diabolical killer who knows everyone’s secrets, including Beatrice's.  The graphic nature of the crimes may not be for everyone but the clever plot and interesting characters with all their flaws and foibles make this a page turner from beginning to end leaving readers breathless and eager for more cases for Beatrice and Florin.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Just Jennifer

This is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett (Harper Perennial,reprinted October 2014)


There is probably not a book group today who has not read &discussed one of Ann Patchett’s lyrical novels, most likely Bel Canto or State of Wonder, but anyone who has not read her essays is missing out on something special, especially when they are personal essays as they are in this collection.  Patchett, co-owner of the independent bookstore Parnassus in Tennessee, freely admits that for any writer, non-fiction, including essays, can often be the bread and butter of their existence, allowing them money to pay the bills but still time for writing what is their true passion.  But Patchett’s essays, mostly published in other places, do not feel as if they were written “to pay to bills” but rather to pay homage to the people, places and events in Patchett’s life that are so dear to her, whether or not she recognized them at the time.  In “The Best Seat in the House” Patchett describes her introduction to the Metropolitan Opera in 2007 when performances began being simulcast in movie theatres throughout the country, including Patchett’s hometown of Nashville.  Not only, as Patchett describes, was the performance on a larger scale (screen) than it would have been had she been at the Met, allowing her to see minute details, but during intermission there were interviews and behind the scenes features rather than the usually long lines for the rest rooms or jockeying for a glass of champagne.  After finally getting a chance to view an opera live at the Met, Patchett realized that while the details were lost, and admittedly some of the scene to an ill-placed tree on stage, she felt the magic in the proximity and intimacy of the experience, but deemed the experience equal to, though different, to watching the production on a big screen.  Patchett also includes her address to the Clemson Freshman class in 2006, challenging them to consider the reasons they chose college, remembering that they are no longer here because it is required by the law nor are they surrounded by people who are demographically similar to them, being drawn from a geographic area such as a school district.  She reminds the incoming class that they are adults and have made adult decisions, but now have the responsibility to act as adults if they expect to be treated as such.  Whether reminiscing or challenging, Patchett’s essays never lose sight of her passion for the written word and what her final words of benediction to the Clemson class are “…keep reading.”

Just Jennifer

The Autobiography of Eleanor Roosevelt (Harper Perennial, reprinted October 2014)


Eleanor Roosevelt (born Anna---Theodore’s niece) was born in New York City on October 11, 1884, married her cousin (to the dismay of her mother-in-law) in 1905, bore six children, was first lady for twelve years beginning in 1933 and served on many councils, presidential commissions and was a delegate to the United Nations before her death in 1962.  Roosevelt watched as the United States went from the Gilded Age into the First World War and into a deep depression, events that couldn’t help but shape her philosophies and sensibilities.  During her husband’s presidency, Roosevelt faced America coming out of the Great Depression, the world at war once again and the United States’ entry into what would become World War II.  She stood by her husband’s side, and alone, as she travelled throughout the country she loved, fighting for civil rights, women’s rights and welfare for all.  She toured war torn countries with Franklin Roosevelt meeting world leaders, staying active in the Democratic Party after his death in 1945.  Roosevelt quickly became a role model for women with her staunch commitment to high ideals and her ability to humanize people and problems without minimizing them.  Her role as a humanitarian and wise woman became her legacy after her death in 1962.  Widely recognized as Franklin Roosevelt’s wife, companion and partner, a great deal of her achievements happened in the eighteen years after his death.  Her autobiography is frank and practical, much as the woman herself, and needs to be read by a new generation of not only women, but men as well, her life one to be emulated.  

Just Jennifer

Neil Patrick Harris: Choose Your Own Autobiography (Crown Archetype, October 2014)

There are certain actors who will forever be a particular character they portrayed: Bob Denver will always be Gilligan, Henry Winkler, the Fonz, Barbara Eden Jeannie and Neil Patrick Harris will be forever in the hearts and minds of his fans Doogie Howser.  And he’s okay with that (pretty much).  Harris’s love of theatre and acting began when he played Toto in his older brother’s middle school production of The Wizard of Oz, disturbed by the fact that at times Toto ran on all fours but other times paraded around on his hind legs.  Encouraged by his middle school teachers, Harris was off and running and so was his career.  At sixteen he was cast by Steven Bochco as a medical genius who was still in high school.  And because he was still actually in high school, Harris’s first year on the set was punctuated by classes and chaperoned by his parents; once he was seventeen and no longer had restrictions, he was able to rent his own apartment and live the life of a young television star.  Doogie Howser ended when Harris was twenty and he made several movies, but was still enraptured by live theatre; he spent as much time going to Broadway shows as possible and even convinced his brother that $70 was better spent on a show than on a new sweater.  Harris also has a talent for magic and is able to play a broad range of characters from Tobias Ragg in Sweeney Todd to the Emcee in Cabaret.  He has hosted the Tony Awards four times and was brash enough to tell Nathan Lane that Harris thought a big finale COULD be done…and he did.  Unique in format, this biography may take a little getting used to.  Using the Choose Your Own Adventure format so popular in the 1980’s Harris allows the readers to choose the path his life will take.  It is worth going back and choosing the other path or even finally reading straight through.  Harris does not apologize (perhaps even exaggerates a bit) for his wilder life during his early twenties, and talks freely and with a fierce amount of love of his husband David Burtka and their two children twins, Gideon Scott and Harper Grace.  Don't pass up the instructions on the back cover of the book: a nifty trick continues Harris's playfulness and sly wit.  A bit tongue-in-cheek at times, Harris’s chosen format echoes the way he has chosen to live his life…one adventure at a time, willing to take a chance to see where that path will take him.

FTC Disclaimer: I received this book from the Blogging for Books program in exchange for this review.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Just Jennifer

The Killer Next Door by Alex Marwood (Penguin Books, October 28, 2014)


23 Beulah Grove, a run-down, cash only apartment building in South London is most decidedly not a place where everyone knows your name.  In fact, it is just the opposite: if you know what someone calls themselves, you can be pretty sure that isn’t what their real name is.  Body parts and smelly drains backed up with who knows what are par for the course for this flop house.  Many feel as if they are being watched, and they probably are, be the closed circuit cameras the smarmy, grossly obese landlord, but worse of all, Collette, who is on the run from her former boss who she saw kill someone, finds evidence that the previous tenant of her apartment was murdered…or at least dismembered…and becomes fearful she may be next, fairly certain the murderer is a fellow border.  One summer evening, a terrible incident leaves the residents with no choice but to form a most unholy alliance: if one of their secrets is revealed, they will all be revealed, unraveled.  Tight plotting, constant action and well-dawn, real characters, even with all their odd proclivities, propel Edgar Award winning Marwood’s sophomore offering to a chilling climax that very few will have seen coming.  A perfect read to stay up late at night with, especially during the seasons of goblins and ghostly things.

Just Jennifer

Flings: Stories by Justin Taylor (Harper, August 2014)


In this collection of short stories that are fleeting, or rather the characters and their relationships are fleeting, Taylor examines the familial bonds, friendships and acquaintances that make up our human experience but that are often just out of our grasp, the effects not felt for perhaps years later.  At the same time, the collection feels as if Taylor is having a private joke with himself, perhaps at the characters’ expense, maybe even at ours, yet with each story there is something hidden, something that makes us want to stand up and redeem ourselves. Taylor has an uncanny knack of inserting sentences or phrases that seem innocent (in “Carol, Alone” the narrator talks about drinking real coffee versus decaf, musing that people chalk up their need to drink decaf to “Bad hearts…”) but at the same time, leaving the reader wondering if the phrase might have a deeper meaning and have been carefully chosen and placed rather than being as innocuous as they did at first blush.  Taylor’s writing has agelessness about it and is easy and genuine whether he is writing about high school students, college students, children or retirees.  Read individually, these stories and characters give the reader pause, but when collected and read as a whole, they linger long past the covers of the book.

Just Jennifer

Crooked River by Valerie Geary (William Morrow, October 2014)


After the death of their mother, fifteen year old Sam McAlister and her ten year old sister Ollie move from Eugene, Oregon to a rural farm where their father, known as Bear, lives in a teepee in the meadow where he raises bees and sleeps under the stars.  Sam is used to spending summers with her father, but Ollie never did.  Ollie has not spoken since the death of their mother, something that happened after their aunt died several years earlier; unknown to Sam, Ollie sees what she calls Shimmering, the spirits of those who have died, and not understanding what she sees often frightens the young girl.  Shortly after the two arrive in Bear’s meadow, the body of a young woman washes up on the shore.  Bear becomes an immediate suspect, but Sam knows in her heart he wouldn’t hurt anyone intentionally, and Ollie knows from the Shimmering that something evil is out there, closer than the sisters know, an evil that has been lurking and festering for many years, an evil that can destroy the McAlisters if left unchecked.  Told in distinctive alternating voices, Sam and Ollie tell their stories, the story of their past, the story of their present and hint at the possibility of their futures as Sam is on the verge of being a young woman and Ollie on the verge of being a teenager and all the changes that comes with that.  The Shimmering that follows Ollie is used effectively and takes the “ghost story” to a new level as the psychological tension stays high in this fast paced narrative that will also allow readers hearts’ to ache for these two young girls who are, at the same time, more lost than they realize and not nearly as lost as others see them.  Crooked River is a strong debut that combines strong characters coming of age, a murder and a touch of other worldliness with a natural setting into a taut thriller. 

Just Jennifer

Sunday Suppers: Recipes + Gatherings by Karen Mordechai (Clarkson Potter, October 2014)

In the spring of 2009, a group of friends and neighbors began gathering in a loft in Brooklyn to create and share a meal communally, a tradition that evolved into a communal cooking center and food website encouraging the sharing of cooking and dining together as a community: Sunday Suppers was created.  With an emphasis on farm-fresh, local ingredients, the recipes are often tried and true with a little bit of a surprise, watermelon salad with lemon and coriander seed dressing, for example, but all are accessible. The recipes are gathered by the time of day (Morning, Noon, Afternoon and Evening) and then subdivided into special events, [Morning] In Bed, a noontime Spring Forager’s Lunch, and Afternoon Taqueria and an Autumn Dinner for Evening.  Easy to read and follow recipes, with relatively easy to locate ingredients make these meals as easy to create as they are special.  Karen Mordechai, a photography rand stylist has help to create a beautiful book that is as beautiful, with plenty of white area on the pages and lovely photos of not only the finished dishes, but the preparation make the book a pleasure to look at as well, as it is useful and inspirational.  Cook’s notes help with sourcing some of the harder to find ingredients and explain the trickier techniques; each occasion begins with a testimonial as to why each meal should be created and shared and what made it special for the person.  Even though Sunday Suppers is Brooklyn based, the book and the recipes have a laid back, relaxed feel to them, much like a lazy Sunday morning, afternoon or evening.   

FTC Disclaimer: I received this book from the Blogging for Books program in exchange for this review.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Just Jennifer

Elsa Schiaparelli by Meryle Secrest (Knopf, 2014)

Growing up in a Roman household with an academic father, a distant mother and a prettier, older sister, no one could have guessed that Elsa Schiaparelli would become a taste maker as one of the most innovative fashion designers of the early twentieth century and that her styles would be embraced especially by American women, forever changing the way they dress.  Biographer Meryle Secrest has taken the life of this woman, whose name admittedly is not as commonly known today as Chanel, and has examined and explored the many facets that inspired and drove Schiaparelli.  After making a bad marriage to a cad and a fraud, Schiaparelli found herself deported from Britain and living in Greenwich Village essentially as a single mother with a seriously ill young daughter (Gogo contracted polio at a young age).  With a lot of moxy and daring (“Dare to be different” became one of the quips she was known for) Schiaparelli began accessorizing---hats (that looked like shoes or were inspired by lamp chops), purses and gloves, and then turned to the practicalities of the time and women: dresses that wrapped on rather than went over an elaborate hairdo, and unexpected fabrics and textiles in unexpected places (otters are good swimmers so why wouldn’t their fur make an exceptional bathing suit?) and practicality, split skirts turned into wide-legged long trousers.  She was inspired to be as daring as Dali who painted a dress design for her, a dress that was instantly snapped up by the Duchess of Windsor as a honeymoon gown.  Schiaparelli’s personal life was not nearly as elegant or glamorous as her public life, rarely seeing her daughter, though all the time attending to Gogo’s corporal needs.  Schiaparelli was also under suspicion as a spy as the United States neared and entered World War II; her returned to Paris was marred by this dark cloud, but Schiaparelli was not kept down and continued to forge ahead.  This well researched, well documented biography is a must read for anyone with an interest in the popular culture or haute couture of the early twentieth century.  Elsa Schiaparelli is a fascinating woman about whom many more should know much more.
FTC Disclaimer: I received this book from the Blogging for Books program in exchange for this review.


Sunday, September 28, 2014

Just Jennifer

The Way Life Should Be by Christina Baker Kline (William Morrow, September 2014)


Who among us has not at one time or another looked around and wondered where we were, how we got here and where we are going?  Angela, a single woman living in New York City, working as an event planner finds herself in just that situation (jobless now) after a circus spectacular goes up in flames.  A keen interest in cooking Italian food learned from her grandmother, a picture of a cozy beach cottage in Maine and the possibility of a love interest met through an online dating site give Angela the courage to head north and start again.  Things in Maine are not how she hoped---even expected---them to be, but instead of turning around and running home, Angela decides to give Maine---and herself---a chance and finds a place to live, begins working in a coffeehouse and makes new friends, starting first and foremost with herself.  Kline’s stories are deceptively simple, but she has an uncanny knack of finding what characters find most frightening and guides them through to the life where things really are the way they should be.

Just Jennifer


Sea Creatures by Susanna Daniel (Harper Perennial, September 2014)


The Pen/Bingham prize winner for her novel Stiltsville revisits this unusual neighborhood off the coast of Southern Florida as she chronicles what it means to be a wife, a mother and a woman, each one individually and all three together and how you decide what you must give up so you don’t entirely lose yourself and when do you stop being one or the other if ever.  Georgia Quillian has relocated herself, her husband Graham and their three-year-old son Frankie to her hometown of Coral Gables.  Graham’s battle with parasomnia has alienated the family’s neighbors in Illinois and most likely caused him not to be awarded tenure.  Most mystifying, at least to Georgia is that something about Graham and his condition has caused Frankie to stop speaking.  Purchasing an old houseboat and docking it in Georgia’s father’s canal, Georgia and Graham hope to give their family some stability and semblance of normalcy, hard to do while floating on water, but they remain tentatively a family, connected only by a mooring line.  Graham has a new job studying extreme weather which keeps him away from his family even more and Georgia begins working for reclusive artist Charlie Hicks who lives in Stiltsville and has his own regrets as a husband, father and man.  As Georgia and Frankie spend less time with Graham and more time with Charlie, Georgia is able to get better perspective on her marriage, family and life.  As Hurricane Andrew approaches, the events in Georgia’s life converge in the calm after the storm, nothing is every the same again.  Daniel’s characters are wonderfully rich, though not all are likable, and many of them undergo a change, and some no matter how hard we root for their redemption us in the end.  Daniel uses the sea to full advantage as place, time and character as it provides safety and enjoyment but can as easily be dangerous and deadly if not given proper respect and care.  A very satisfying novel that often shifts as though looking at these lives through the lens of a kaleidoscope. 

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Just Jennifer

Some Luck by Jane Smiley (Knopf, October 7, 2014)


In the first book of a trilogy, Jane Smiley takes the Langdon family from their Iowa farm in 1920 through the mid-1950s, following the lives of Walter and Rosanna's children and extended family.  Each chapter in the book is a year in the life of the Langdons and takes on the rhythm of the seasons, echoed in the farming and later the school years of the children.  While Walter worries about the choice he has made to be a farmer, worries about drought and the stock market crash, Rosanna runs the household, raising their children, worrying that the children will grow up to be good people who can care for themselves and others.  Each of their children is different, strong-willed, fearless Frankie, animal-lover Joe, dreamy Lillian, book smart Henry and finally Claire, who is just Claire and never any trouble at all.  Together the family faces the stock market crash, the death of a child, the death of older family members, neighbors losing their farms, World War II, the Cold War and the romances and lives of the children as they venture out into the world and start their own families and their own futures.  Pulitzer prize winner Smiley writes with grace and assurance, giving each character, even as a toddler, a distinctive voice and leaving the reader with a picture of the whole rather than individual characters, and anxious for the second installment to the trilogy.  

Just Jennifer

Reunion by Hannah Pittard (Grand Central, October 7, 2014)


Kate is aboard a plane on a runway waiting to take off when she gets the news her father has died.  Kate and her two siblings, Nell and Elliot are from their father’s first marriage; after the death of his wife, he became a serial husband with four more marriages, much adultery and added several more children to the family.  Kate keeps in touch with Nell and Elliot, though keeps a certain part of her closed off to them: the part about which she had an affair, the part about which her husband has changed his mind about having children, and the part about which she spent all the money she earned as a screenwriter early in her career, and career that has more than just stalled.  As the original siblings converge in Atlanta for their father’s funeral, they must confront each other, their step-mothers and myriad of step-siblings, including their father’s current family, and themselves.  It is during this time that Kate realizes she is more like her father than she would admit to anyone, and it is the time spent with his youngest child Mindy that makes her more self-aware, more ready to come clean with her family, and herself.  Lovely sentences  and unique voices will draw the reader in, though Kate’s story doesn't feel quite finished, nor is the reader left with enough to feel one way or the other about her future.

Just Jennifer

Truth Be Told by Hank Phillippi Ryan (Forge, October 7, 2014)


In her third outing, journalist Jane Ryan is trying to get her career back on track, hoping that the next story will be the BIG ONE; doing a story on a family being evicted from their home after foreclosure, Jane is on hand when a body is discovered in the house.  At the same time, Jane is following a lead on mortgages and banks and is a little more than surprised when both stories get tangled together.  As Jane follows her lead, she learns of a modern day Robin Hood and a scheme that can mean big money for someone---or life and death.  At the same time, Detective Jake Brogan, with whom Jane is fighting an incredible mutual attraction, is handed the solution to a decades old cold case…only problem is, he doesn't believe the confession.  In Ryan’s skilled hands (she is an Emmy winning journalist and a multi-winning mystery author) these three plots get twisted and turned every which way and end up each connecting to the other in unusual and unforeseen, but believable ways.   Jane and Jake continue their collaboration on the job and clandestinely off the job, trying to figure out how a police detective can have a relationship with a member of the fifth estate while both keep their credibility with their colleagues, all of which leads to a cliff hanging moment.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Just Jennifer

Insurrections of the Mind: 100 Years of Politics and Culture in America edited by Franklin Foer (Harper Perennial, September 2014)


What do Virginia Woolf, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Vladimir Nabokov and James Wood have in common? During the last hundred years, each one wrote an essay for The New Republic, a magazine credited with helping shape the idea of liberalism in the United States during the twentieth-century.  Organized by decade, beginning just as the Great War begins, ideas, some of which now seem commonplace (birth control or gay marriage) as the continue to spur great debates, are introduced.  Richard Rovere’s 1957 essay frames its message around Arthur Miller’s refusing to name names to the House Committee on Un-American Activities, Margaret Talbot’s musing on the empire Martha Stewart built from the domestic arts, a lifestyle, stereotype women fought to get away from in the past, while Irving Howe’s 1991 piece debates the importance and necessity of “the canon” being taught as part of humanity and social science curricula and posits that it may be [past] time to revisit and even expand this body of work.  More than a socio-political history, these essays bring up issues, many of which are still relevant today.  A short biography of each author prefaces their essay. 

Just Jennifer

Blue Ribbon Baking from a Redneck Kitchen by Francine Bryson (Clarkson Potter, September 2014)


At the age of four, South Carolina born Francine Bryson pulled up a stool to her Granny’s & Nana’s counters learned how to make pie crusts and never looked back.  Several decades and countless blue ribbons later, Francine may not have won first place in CBS’s The American Baking Competition, but she won the hearts of American bakers and got to do the thing for which she was most hoping---a cookbook contract.  Francine may have earned her initial fame as a pie baker---who else could combine chocolate and peanut butter with bacon, but includes recipes for cookies, cakes, tea breads and biscuits, both classic and a little more inventive then Granny or Nana would have imagined.  The only recipe Francine, by her own admission, never mastered, was traditional Southern biscuits; imagine Francine’s terror when during tryouts for The American Baking Competition she turned over the recipe card she was to make and found it was for Southern style biscuits, which everyone assumed she’d be a ringer to create.  Knowing these biscuits were going to make or break the deal, Francine turned out fluffier biscuits than in her wildest dreams and realized the secret to the perfect biscuit is “…not to mess with them too much.” Francine’s sass and grit and blue ribbon tips make piecrusts see less daunting (who other than Francine would have thought to use crushed Pepperidge Farm Milano cookies as a crust) make bakers and non-bakers alike eager to try these recipes.  No low-fat, lo-cal or gluten free here, just prettily edge pages echoing gingham, calico and homespun.  The only thing that might have made this book even prettier would have been more color photos of the scrumptious recipes.  FTC Disclaimer: I received this book from the Blogging for Books program in exchange for this review.